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Joseph Cotten 1905-1994

Country : Petersburg, Virginia
Profession : Actor
Date of birth : 1905-05-15
Date of death : 1994-02-06
Cause of Death : Pneumonia

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Joseph Cheshire Cotten (May 15, 1905 – February 6, 1994) was an American actor of stage and film. He was perhaps best known for his collaborations with Orson Welles, which included Citizen Kane, The Third Man, The Magnificent Ambersons and Journey into Fear, which Cotten wrote, and for his work with Alfred Hitchcock in Shadow of a Doubt. He received his start on Broadway, starring in the original productions of The Philadelphia Story and Sabrina Fair, and became a recognizable Hollywood star in his own right with films such as Shadow of a Doubt and Portrait of Jennie.

Biography and career

Early life and career

Cotten was born in Petersburg, Virginia, the son of Sallie Bartlett and Joseph Cheshire Cotten, Sr., who was an assistant postmaster. Cotten worked as an advertising agent after attending the Washington, D.C., Hickman School of Speech and Expression, where he studied acting. His work as a theater critic inspired him to become more involved in theatre productions, first in Virginia, and later in New York. Cotten made his Broadway debut in 1930, and soon befriended up-and-coming actor/director/producer Orson Welles. In 1937, he joined Welles' Mercury Theatre Company, starring in productions of Julius Caesar and Shoemaker's Holiday.

Cotten made his film debut in the Welles-directed short Too Much Johnson, a comedy based on William Gillette's 1890 play. The short was occasionally screened before or after Mercury productions, but never received an official release. Before acting in this film, Cotten (who had played center on a semiprofessional football team while living in Washington in 1923) got into good physical shape by working out at the Waple Studio of Physical Culture in Alexandria, Virginia. Cotten returned to Broadway in 1939, starring as C.K. Dexter Haven in the original production of Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story as well as the 1953 production of Sabrina Fair.

Citizen Kane

After the success of Welles' famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, Welles got an impressive contract with RKO Pictures. The two-picture deal promised full creative control for the young director, and Welles made sure to feature his Mercury players in whatever production he chose to bring to screen. However, after a year, production hadn't yet started on any of Welles' prospective projects. It took a meeting with writer Herman J. Mankiewicz for Welles to find a story to bring to the screen.

In mid-1940 filming began on Citizen Kane, which portrayed the life of a brilliant media mogul (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, a drama critic for his print empire.

When released on May 1, 1941, Citizen Kane (based in part on the life of William Randolph Hearst) found little attention at theaters; Hearst owned numerous major newspapers, and forbade advertisements for the film in them. The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards in 1942, but was largely ignored by the Academy, only winning for Best Screenplay, for Welles and Mankiewicz. The film helped launch the careers of many other Mercury players, such as 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 were extremely successful character film actors).

Collaborations with Welles

Despite Welles' reputation of being difficult to get along with, he and Cotten remained good friends. Cotten starred a year later in Welles' adaptation and production of The Magnificent Ambersons, supported by Moorehead. After the commercial disappointment of Citizen Kane, RKO was apprehensive about the new film, and cut nearly an hour off the running time before releasing it. 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 (Moorehead was nominated for Best Supporting Actress).

In 1943, Cotten took control of the Nazi-related thriller Journey Into Fear. He wrote the screenplay with the help of Welles (who produced the film), and starred in the film with Dolores del Rio. 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 separated the friends from professional collaboration for six years.

The last collaboration with Welles is widely considered to be Cotten's best performance. In The Third Man, 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 forties and fifties

Cotten proved himself a versatile actor in Hollywood following the success of Citizen Kane. The characters he played onscreen during this period ranged from a serial killer in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (opposite Teresa Wright) to an eager police detective in 1944's Gaslight (opposite Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and in her film debut, Angela Lansbury). 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 later in the critically acclaimed Portrait of Jennie (1948), in which he played a melancholy artist who becomes obsessed with a girl who may have died long ago. He reteamed with Hitchcock at the end of the decade in Under Capricorn (1949) as an Australian land-owner.

Cotten's career cooled in the 1950s with a string of less high-profile roles in films such as the dark Civil War epic Two Flags West, the Joan Fontaine romance September Affair, and the Marilyn Monroe vehicle, Niagara. His last theatrical releases in the '50s were mostly film-noir outings and unsuccessful character studies. In 1956, Cotten left film for several years in exchange for a string of successful television ventures, such as the NBC series On Trial, renamed at midseason The Joseph Cotten Show.

Cotten was also featured in the successful series Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Ronald W. Reagan's General Electric Theater. He finished the decade with a cameo appearance in the Welles production Touch of Evil and a starring role in the 1958 film adaptation of Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon. 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 sixties and seventies

In 1960, he married British actress Patricia Medina, after his first wife, Lenore Kipp, died of leukemia earlier that year. After some time away from film, Cotten returned in 1964 in the horror classic Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, opposite fellow screen veterans Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, and Agnes Moorehead. The rest of the decade found Cotten in a number of forgettable B-movies, foreign productions, and TV movies. He made guest appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show many times throughout the show's run.

In the early 1970s, Cotten followed a supporting role in Tora! Tora! Tora!, with several horror features such as The Abominable Dr. Phibes, opposite Vincent Price, and the classic Soylent Green (1973). Later in the decade, Cotten was featured in several all-star disaster films, including Airport '77 opposite James Stewart and again with Olivia de Havilland and the nuclear thriller Twilight's Last Gleaming. On TV, he did a guest spot opposite James Garner on the 70's TV detective drama The Rockford Files.

Last years

One of Cotten's last films was 1980's disastrous Heaven's Gate. Afterward, he appeared with Hollywood star Gloria Grahame in a twist-in-the-tale episode of the cult British TV show, Tales of the Unexpected.

Shortly after, the 75-year-old actor retired with his wife to their home in Westwood, California. Cotten published a popular autobiography, Vanity Will Get You Somewhere, in 1987. He died on February 6, 1994, of pneumonia, a complication of throat cancer at the age of 88, leaving behind his wife and stepdaughter. He was buried at Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia.


Cotten is considered one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood history. He was never nominated for an Academy Award, despite his immense body of work, including many films that are considered classics today. The only notable acting award Cotten received throughout his career was a Venice Film Festival Award for Best Actor for his work in Portrait of Jennie.


  • Too Much Johnson (1938) (short subject)
  • Citizen Kane (1941)
  • Lydia (1941)
  • The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
  • Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
  • Journey into Fear (1943)
  • Hers to Hold (1943)
  • Gaslight (1944)
  • Since You Went Away (1944)
  • I'll Be Seeing You (1945)
  • Love Letters (1945)
  • Duel in the Sun (1946)
  • The Farmer's Daughter (1947)
  • Portrait of Jennie (1948)
  • The Third Man (1949)
  • Under Capricorn (1949)
  • Beyond the Forest (1949)
  • Two Flags West (1950)
  • Walk Softly, Stranger (1950)
  • September Affair (1950)
  • Half Angel (1951)
  • Peking Express (1951)
  • The Man with a Cloak (1951)
  • The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice (1952)
  • The Wild Heart (1952) (narrator)
  • Untamed Frontier (1952)
  • The Steel Trap (1952)
  • Egypt by Three (1953) (narrator)
  • Niagara (1953)
  • A Blueprint for Murder (1953)
  • Vom Himmel gefallen or Special Delivery (1955)
  • The Bottom of the Bottle (1956)
  • The Killer Is Loose (1956)
  • The Halliday Brand (1957)
  • Touch of Evil (1958)
  • From the Earth to the Moon (1958)
  • The Angel Wore Red (1960)
  • The Last Sunset (1961)
  • Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
  • The Great Sioux Massacre (1965)
  • The Money Trap (1965)
  • The Oscar (1966)
  • The Tramplers (1966)
  • The Cruel Ones (1967)
  • Brighty of the Grand Canyon (1967)
  • Jack of Diamonds (1967)
  • Days of Fire (1968)
  • Gangster '70 (1968)
  • Petulia (1968)
  • White Comanche (1968)
  • Keene (1969)
  • Latitude Zero (1969)
  • The Grasshopper (1970)
  • Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
  • The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
  • Lady Frankenstein (1971)
  • Baron Blood (1972)
  • Doomsday Voyage (1972)
  • The Scientific Cardplayer (1972)
  • A Delicate Balance (1973)
  • Soylent Green (1973)
  • Syndicate Sadists (1975)
  • Timber Tramps (1975)
  • A Whisper in the Dark (1976)
  • F for Fake (1976) (documentary)
  • Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977)
  • Airport '77 (1977)
  • Last In, First Out (1978)
  • Caravans (1978)
  • Concorde Affair (1978)
  • Something Waits in the Dark (1979)
  • Concorde Affair '79 (1979)
  • Guyana: Crime of the Century (1979)
  • The Hearse (1980)
  • Delusion (1980)
  • Heaven's Gate (1980)
  • The Survivor (1981)

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