Joseph Cheshire Cotten (May 15, 1905 – February 6, 1994) was an American film, stage and television actor. Cotten achieved prominence onBroadway, starring in the original stage productions of The Philadelphia Story and Sabrina Fair. He first gained worldwide fame in the Orson Wellesfilms Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and Journey into Fear (1943), for which Cotten was also credited with the screenplay. He went on to star in such popular films as Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Duel in the Sun (which remains one of the top 100 highest grossing films of all time when adjusted for inflation), Love Letters (1945), Portrait of Jennie (1948) and The Third Man (1949).
Life and career
Joseph Cotten modeled for The American Magazine
Early life and work
Joseph Cotten was born in 1905 in Petersburg, Virginia, son of Joseph Cheshire Cotten, Sr., an assistant postmaster and his wife, Sally Willson Cotten. He worked as an advertising agent after studying acting at the Hickman School of Speech and Expression in Washington, D.C. His work as a theatre critic inspired him to become involved in theatre productions, first in Virginia, then in New York City. Cotten made his Broadway debut in 1930, and soon became friends with Orson Welles.
Cotten had his first starring role in Welles's second production for the Federal Theatre Project — the farce Horse Eats Hat, adapted by Welles and Edwin Denby from Eugène Marin Labiche's play Un Chapeau de Paille d'Italie. The play was presented from September 26 to December 5, 1936, at theMaxine Elliott Theatre, New York.
In 1937 Cotten became an inaugural member of Welles's Mercury Theatre company, starring in Broadway productions of Julius Caesar, The Shoemaker's Holiday and Danton's Death, and in radio dramas presented on The Mercury Theatre on the Air and The Campbell Playhouse.
Cotten made his film debut in the Welles-directed short, Too Much Johnson, a comedy that was intended to complement an aborted 1938 Mercury stage production of William Gillette's 1890 play. The film never was screened in public and no complete print survives. Cotten got into good physical shape prior to the film by working out at the Harry E. Waple Studio of Physical Culture in Alexandria, Virginia.
Cotten returned to Broadway in 1939, creating the role of C. K. Dexter Haven opposite Katharine Hepburn's Tracy Lord in the original production of Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story. The play ran for a year at the Shubert Theatre, and in the months before its extensive national tour a film version was to be made by MGM. Cotten went to Hollywood, but discovered there that his stage success in The Philadelphia Story translated to, in the words of his agentLeland Hayward, "spending a solid year creating the Cary Grant role." Hayward suggested that they call Cotten's good pal, Orson Welles. "He's been making big waves out here," Hayward said. "Maybe nobody in Hollywood ever heard of the Shubert Theatre in New York, but everybody certainly knows about the Mercury Theatre in New York."
in Citizen Kane
After the success of Welles's War of the Worlds 1938 Halloween radio broadcast, Welles gained a unique contract with RKO Pictures. The two-picture deal promised full creative control for the young director below an agreed budget limit, and Welles's intention was to feature the Mercury Players in his productions. Shooting had still not begun on a Welles film after a year, but after a meeting with writer Herman J. Mankiewicz Welles had a suitable project.
In mid-1940 filming began on Citizen Kane, portraying the life of a press magnate (played by Welles) who starts out as an idealist but eventually turns into a corrupt, lonely old man. The film featured Cotten prominently in the role of Kane's best friend Jedediah Leland, eventually a drama critic for one of Kane's papers.
When released on May 1, 1941, Citizen Kane — based in part on the life of William Randolph Hearst — did not do much business at theaters; Hearst owned numerous major newspapers, and forbade them to carry advertisements for the film. Nominated for nine Academy Awards in 1942, the film won only for Best Screenplay, for Mankiewicz and Welles. Citizen Kane launched the film careers of the Mercury Players, including Agnes Moorehead (who played Kane's mother), Ruth Warrick (Kane's first wife), and Ray Collins (Kane's political opponent). However, Cotten was the only one of the four to find major success as a lead in Hollywood outside of Citizen Kane; Moorehead and Collins became successful character film actors.
Later collaborations with Welles
Joseph Cotten in The Third Man
, directed by Carol Reed
Cotten starred a year later in Welles's adaptation and production of The Magnificent Ambersons. After the commercial disappointment of Citizen Kane, RKO was apprehensive about the new film, and after poor preview responses, cut it by nearly an hour before its release. Though at points the film appeared disjointed, it was well received by critics. Despite the critical accolades Cotten received for his performance, he was again snubbed by the Academy.
In 1941, Cotten took control of the Nazi-related thriller Journey into Fear (released in 1943). He wrote the screenplay with the help of Welles (who produced the film), and starred in the film with Dolores del Río. By the time production wrapped, Welles had been dropped from RKO, and, as part of the settlement, was required to edit the film to suitable length. The film was a minor hit, but the two friends did not collaborate professionally during the next six years.
In The Third Man (1949), Cotten portrays a writer of pulp fiction who travels to post-war Vienna to meet his friend Harry Lime (Welles). When he arrives, he discovers that Lime has died, and is determined to prove to the police that it was murder, but uncovers an even darker secret.
The 1940s and 1950s
The characters that he played onscreen during this period ranged from a serial killer in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943, opposite Teresa Wright) to an eager police detective in Gaslight (1944, with Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and Angela Lansbury in her film debut). Cotten starred with Jennifer Jones in four films: the wartime domestic drama Since You Went Away (1944), the romantic drama Love Letters (1945), the western Duel in the Sun (1946), and the critically acclaimed Portrait of Jennie (1948), in which he played a melancholy artist who becomes obsessed with a girl who may have died many years ago. He reunited with Hitchcock at the end of the decade in Under Capricorn (1949) as an Australian land-owner with a shady past.
Exhibitors voted him the 17th most popular star in the US in 1945.
Cotten's career cooled in the 1950s with a string of less high-profile roles in films such as the dark Civil War Two Flags West(1950), the Joan Fontaine romance September Affair (also 1950), and the Marilyn Monroe vehicle Niagara (1953), after James Mason turned down the role. His last theatrical releases in the '50s were mostly film-noir and unsuccessful character studies. In 1956, Cotten left film for years for a string of successful television ventures, such as the NBC series On Trial (renamed at mid-season The Joseph Cotten Show).
In 1953 Cotten created the role of Linus Larrabee, Jr., in the original 1953 Broadway production of Sabrina Fair.
Cotten was featured in Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Ronald W. Reagan's General Electric Theater. He appeared on May 2, 1957, on NBC's comedy variety series, The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford. Near the end of the decade, he made a cameo appearance in Welles's Touch of Evil (1958) and a starring role in the film adaptation of Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon (also 1958). He also appeared as Dick Burlingame and Charles Lawrence in the 1960 episodes "The Blue Goose" and "Dark Fear" of CBS's anthology series The DuPont Show with June Allyson. He also appeared on NBC's anthology series, The Barbara Stanwyck Show.
The 1960s and 1970s
Cotten with his second wife,
In 1960, he married British actress Patricia Medina after his first wife, Lenore Kipp, died of leukemia earlier in the year. After some time away from film, Cotten returned in the horror classic Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), with Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, and Agnes Moorehead. The rest of the decade found Cotten in a number of European and Japanese productions, B-movies and made for television movies. He made multiple guest appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1967, he joined Karl Swenson, Pat Conway, and Dick Foran in the nostalgic western dramatic film Brighty of the Grand Canyon, about a burro who lived in the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River from about 1892-1922. On television, he narrated David L. Wolper's documentaryHollywood and the Stars (1963–64).
In the early 1970s, Cotten followed a supporting role in Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) with several horror features: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), withVincent Price, and Soylent Green (1973), the last film featuring Edward G. Robinson. Later in the decade, Cotten was in several all-star disaster films, including Airport '77 (1977) with James Stewart and again with Olivia de Havilland, and the nuclear thriller Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977). On television, he did a guest spot on The Rockford Files ("This Case Is Closed", 1974).
One of Cotten's last films was Heaven's Gate (1980), critically mauled in the United States. Around the same time, he appeared in two episodes of a twist-in-the-tale episode of the British TV series, Tales of the Unexpected, with Wendy Hiller (1979), and Gloria Grahame (1980). He also appeared in three horror films, The Hearse, Delusion (also known as The House Where Death Lives), and The Survivor. The 75-year-old actor retired with his wife to their home in Los Angeles, California. In 1987, Cotten published a popular autobiography, Vanity Will Get You Somewhere.
He died on February 6, 1994, of pneumonia, a complication of throat cancer at the age of 88. He was buried at Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia.