Too Much Johnson
Journey into Fear
Hers to Hold
I’ll Be Seeing You
Duel in the Sun
The Farmer’s Daughter
Beyond the Forest
Two Flags West
Walk Softly, Stranger
The Man with a Cloak
The Wild Heart
The Steel Trap
A Blueprint for Murder
The Bottom of the Bottle
The Killer Is Loose
The Halliday Brand
From the Earth to the Moon
The Angel Wore Red
The Last Sunset
The Great Sioux Massacre
The Money Trap
Brighty of the Grand Canyon
Jack of Diamonds
Some May Live
Days of Fire
Tora! Tora! Tora!
The Abominable Dr. Phibes
The Scientific Cardplayer
A Delicate Balance
F for Fake
A Whisper in the Dark
Twilight’s Last Gleaming
Last In, First Out
The Perfect Crime
Island of the Fishmen
The Concorde Affair
Guyana: Crime of the Century
Joseph Cotton was never nominated for an Academy Award.
In Hollywood, those stars who have been around a long while and seem to grow better with time are the ones who regard “stardom” merely as an opportunity to grow. ~ Joseph Cotten
Joseph Cotten: Learn more about him, review his filmography and more
Joseph Cheshire Cotten, Jr. was born in 1905 in Petersburg, Virginia, the first of three sons born to Joseph Cheshire Cotten, Sr., an assistant postmaster, and Sally Willson Cotten. He grew up in the Tidewater region and showed an aptitude for drama and a gift for storytelling. In 1923, when Cotten was 18, his family arranged for him to receive private lessons at the Hickman School of Expression in Washington, D.C., and underwrote his expenses. He earned spending money playing professional football on Sundays, for $25 a quarter. After graduation, he earned enough money as a lifeguard at Wilcox Lake to pay back his family’s loan, with interest.
He worked as an advertising agent, and 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.
In 1934, Joseph Cotten met and became friends with Orson Welles, a fellow cast member on CBS Radio’s The American School of the Air. Welles regarded Cotten as a brilliant comic actor, and gave him the starring role in his Federal Theatre Project farce, Horse Eats Hat. Cotten was sure that Horse Eats Hat won him the notice of his future Broadway co-star, Katharine Hepburn.
In 1937, Cotten became an inaugural member of Welles’s Mercury Theatre company, starring in its Broadway productions 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 the aborted 1938 Mercury stage production of William Gillette’s 1890 play. The film was never screened in public and was lost until 2013.
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 agent Leland 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.
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 and Warrick spent decades in a career in television as Aunt Phoebe on the daytime soap opera, All My Children.
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, the Academy again snubbed him.
Cotten and Welles (uncredited) wrote the Nazi-related thriller Journey into Fear (1943) based on the novel by Eric Ambler. Released by RKO, Norman Foster directed the Mercury production. It was a collaborative effort due to the difficulties shooting the film and the pressures related to Welles’s imminent departure to South America to begin work on It’s All True.
Cotten and Welles worked together in The Third Man (1949). Cotten portrays a writer of pulp fiction who travels to postwar 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 characters that Cotten played onscreen during the 1940s ranged from a serial killer in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) to an eager police detective in Gaslight (1944). Cotten starred with Jennifer Jones in four films for Selznick International Pictures: the wartime domestic drama Since You Went Away (1944); the romantic drama Love Letters (1945); Duel in the Sun (1946), which remains one of the top 100 highest-grossing films of all time when adjusted for inflation; 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 before. As well as reuniting onscreen with Orson Welles in Carol Reed’s The Third Man in 1949, he reunited with Hitchcock in Under Capricorn (1949) as an Australian landowner with a shady past.
On the stage in 1953, Cotten created the role of Linus Larrabee, Jr., in the original Broadway production of Sabrina Fair, opposite Margaret Sullavan. The production ran November 11, 1953 – August 21, 1954, and was the basis of the Billy Wilder film Sabrina, which starred Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn.
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).
Cotten was featured in Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Ronald 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’ Touch of Evil (1958) and a starring role in the film adaptation of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (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.
In 1960, Cotten 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 several European and Japanese productions, B-movies and made for television movies.
In the early 1970s, Cotten followed a supporting role in Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) with several horror features: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) with Vincent 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 guest spots on The Rockford Files (“This Case Is Closed”, 1974) and “The Love Boat”.
One of Cotten’s last films was the box-office bomb Heaven’s Gate (1980), at the time critically mauled in the United States but well received abroad. The film was positively reevaluated early in the 21st century, receiving a Criterion Collection release in 2013.
He appeared in two episodes of a twist-in-the-tale episode of the British television series Tales of the Unexpected, with Wendy Hiller (1979), and Gloria Grahame (1980). He also appeared in three horror films, The Hearse (1980), Delusion (also known as The House Where Death Lives) (1980), and the Australian film The Survivor (1981). Cotten suffered a stroke in 1981 which caused him to temporarily lose his voice.
On June 8, 1981, Cotten had a heart attack followed by a stroke that affected his speech center. He began years of therapy which in time made it possible for him to speak again.
In 1990, Cotten’s larynx was removed due to cancer. He died on February 6, 1994, of pneumonia, at the age of 88. He was buried at Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia.