Joseph Cotten

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Joseph Cotten
Joseph Cotten 1957.JPG
Born Joseph Cheshire Cotten, Jr.
(1905-05-15)May 15, 1905
Petersburg, Virginia, U.S.
Died February 6, 1994(1994-02-06) (aged 88)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.[1]
Resting place
Blandford Cemetery, Petersburg, Virginia
Occupation Actor
Years active 1930–1981
Spouse(s) Lenore Kipp (1931–1960)
Patricia Medina (1960–1994)
Awards Volpi Cup for Best Actor:
1949 Portrait of Jennie

Joseph Cheshire Cotten, Jr. (May 15, 1905 – February 6, 1994) was an American film, stage and television actor. Cotten achieved prominence on Broadway, starring in the original stage productions of The Philadelphia Story and Sabrina Fair. He first gained worldwide fame in the Orson Welles films 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 become one of the leading Hollywood actors of the 1940s, appearing in films such as Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Love Letters (1945), Duel in the Sun (1946), Portrait of Jennie (1948) and The Third Man (1949). One of his final films was the infamous Michael Cimino-directed film Heaven's Gate (1980).

Joseph Cotten modeled for The American Magazine (September 1931)
Cotten in Horse Eats Hat (1936)
Cotten is introduced in the trailer for Citizen Kane (1941)
Cotten and Dolores del Río in Journey into Fear (1943)
Wedding of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, with best man Joseph Cotten (September 7, 1943)
Joseph Cotten and Patricia Medina in 1973

Life and career[edit]

Joseph Cotten was born in 1905 in Petersburg, Virginia, the first of Joseph Cheshire Cotten, Sr., an assistant postmaster and his wife, Sally Willson Cotten's three boys (his brothers being Sam and Whit Cotten). [2]:224 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.

In 1934 Cotten met and became friends with Orson Welles, a fellow cast member on CBS Radio's The American School of the Air.[2]:30–31 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.[2]:34 [3] The play was presented from September 26 to December 5, 1936, at the Maxine Elliott Theatre, New York.[4]:334

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 was never screened in public; it was reported in 2013 that a print had been discovered in Pordenone, Italy.[5]

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."[2]:34–37

Citizen Kane[edit]

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 daytime television.

Later collaborations with Welles[edit]

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.

Cotten and Welles (uncredited) wrote the Nazi-related thriller Journey into Fear (1943) based on the novel by Eric Ambler. Released by RKO, the Mercury production was directed by Norman Foster. 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.[4]:165, 377

After Welles's return he and Cotten co-produced The Mercury Wonder Show for members of the U.S. armed services. Opening August 3, 1943, the all-star magic and variety show was presented in a tent at 9000 Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood. Featured were Welles (Orson the Magnificent), Cotten (Jo-Jo the Great), Rita Hayworth (forced to quit by Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn and replaced by Marlene Dietrich) Agnes Moorehead (Calliope Aggie) and others. Tickets were free to servicemen, and more than 48,000 of them had seen show by September 1943.[4]:177, 377–378

In film, 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 1940s and 1950s[edit]

The characters that Cotten played onscreen during the 1940s 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), 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.

Exhibitors voted him the 17th most popular star in the US in 1945.[6]

Cotten's screen 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 (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.

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.[7]

In 1956, Cotten left film for years for a string of successful television ventures, such as the NBC series On Trial[8] (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.[9] Near the end of the decade, he made a cameo appearance in Welles'sTouch 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[edit]

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 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 documentary Hollywood and the Stars (1963–64). In 1968 he made a guest appearance in a two-part episode of the series Ironside ("Split Second to an Epitaph").

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".

Last years[edit]

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. 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. Cotten suffered a stroke in 1981 which caused him to temporarily lose his voice.[10]

Illness and death[edit]

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. As he began to recover, he and Orson Welles talked on the phone each week for a couple of hours: "He was strong and supportive," Cotten wrote, "and whenever I used the wrong word (which was frequently) he would say, 'That's a much better word, Jo, I'm going to use it.'" He and Welles would meet for lunch and reminisce, and when Cotten said he had written a book Welles asked for the manuscript and read it that same night.[2]:215–217 In a phone conversation October 9, 1985, Welles told his friend and mentor Roger Hill that Cotten had written a book, and Hill asked how it read. "Gentle, witty, and self-effacing, just like Jo," Welles replied. "My only complaint is that it's too brief."[11]:289

Welles died the following day. "Somewhere among his possessions is a manuscript of this book," Cotten wrote on the last page of his autobiography, published in 1987 under the title Vanity Will Get You Somewhere.[2]:217[12]

In 1990 Cotten's larynx was removed due to cancer.[1] He died February 6, 1994, of pneumonia, at the age of 88.[13] He was buried at Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia.[14][15]


Joseph Cotten received a Venice Film Festival Award for Best Actor for his work in Portrait of Jennie.

In the 2009 film, Me and Orson Welles, Cotten is portrayed by James Tupper.

Cotten's only child was his stepdaughter, Judy, with his first wife Lenore Kipp LaMont (1906–1960) whose daughter was 2 years old at the time of their marriage. Cotten's first wife Kipp LaMont died of leukemia on January 7, 1960 at the age of 54 after their nearly 30 years of marriage. Cotten was then married for over 33 years to his second wife, actress Patricia Medina, until his death.


Year Title Role Notes
1938 Too Much Johnson Augustus Billings Short
1941 Citizen Kane Jed Leland
1941 Lydia Michael Fitzpatrick
1942 The Magnificent Ambersons Eugene Morgan
1943 Shadow of a Doubt Charles Oakley
1943 Journey into Fear Howard Graham Screenplay (with uncredited Orson Welles)
1943 Hers to Hold Bill Morley
1944 Gaslight Brian Cameron
1944 Since You Went Away Lieutenant Commander Tony Willett
1945 I'll Be Seeing You Zachary Morgan
1945 Love Letters Allen Quinton
1946 Duel in the Sun Jesse McCanless
1947 The Farmer's Daughter Glenn Morley
1948 Portrait of Jennie Eben Adams Venice Film Festival Award for Best Actor
1949 The Third Man Holly Martins
1949 Under Capricorn Samson Flusky
1949 Beyond the Forest Dr. Louis Moline
1950 Two Flags West Col. Clay Tucker
1950 Walk Softly, Stranger Chris Hale
1950 September Affair David Lawrence
1951 Half Angel John Raymond, Jr.
1951 Peking Express Michael Bachlin
1951 The Man with a Cloak Dupin
1952 Othello Senator (uncredited)
1952 The Wild Heart Narrator
1952 Untamed Frontier Kirk Denbow
1952 The Steel Trap Jim Osborne
1953 Egypt by Three Narrator
1953 Niagara George Loomis
1953 A Blueprint for Murder Whitney Cameron
1954 Light's Diamond Jubilee (TV) Himself Broadcast on all four U.S. TV networks
1954 Producers' Showcase (TV) Grant Matthews "State of the Union"
1954 General Electric Theater (TV) Hanley "The High Green Wall"
1955 Special Delivery John Adams
1955 The Best of Broadway (TV) Dan McCorn "Broadway"
1955 Celebrity Playhouse (TV) Marshal Fenton Lockhart "Showdown at San Pablo"
1955 Alfred Hitchcock Presents (TV) William Callew "Breakdown"
1955–1956 Star Stage (TV) Narrator
Alexander Holmes
"The Man in the Black Robe"
"The U.S. vs. Alexander Holmes"
1956 The Bottom of the Bottle P.M. Martin
1956 The Ford Television Theatre (TV) John Ashburn "Man Without a Fear"
1956 The Killer Is Loose Detective Sam Wagner
1956 General Electric Theater (TV) Captain
Private Harris
"H.M.S. Marlborough Will Enter Port"
"The Enemies"
1956–1959 The Joseph Cotten Show (TV) Various roles
1957 The Halliday Brand Daniel Halliday
1957 Jane Wyman Presents The Fireside Theater (TV) Bruce Malone "Contact"
1957 Telephone Time (TV) Lt. Cmdr. Joseph P. Fyffe "The Man the Navy Couldn't Sink"
1957 Playhouse 90 (TV) Robert Rainey "The Edge of Innocence"
1957 The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show
1957 Schlitz Playhouse (TV) "Neighbors"
1958 Zane Grey Theatre (TV) Ben Harper "Man Unforgiving"
1958 Suspicion (TV) Gregg Carey "The Eye of Truth"
1958 Alfred Hitchcock Presents (TV) Tony Gould "Together"
1958 Touch of Evil Coroner
1958 From the Earth to the Moon Victor Barbicane
1959 Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse (TV) Black McSween "The Day the Town Stood Up"
1959 Alfred Hitchcock Presents (TV) Courtney Masterson "Dead Weight"
1960 The Angel Wore Red Hawthorne
1960 The DuPont Show with June Allyson (TV) Dick Burlingame
Charles Lawrence
"The Blue Goose"
"Dark Fear"
1960 Checkmate (TV) Dr. George Mallinson "Face in the Window"
1961 The Barbara Stanwyck Show (TV) Mac McClay "The Hitch-Hiker"
1961 The Last Sunset John Breckenridge
1961 Bus Stop (TV) Professor Wheelright "Cherie"
1961 Theatre '62 (TV) Alex Sebastian "Notorious"
1961 Wagon Train (TV) Captain Dan Brady "The Captain Dan Brady Story"
1962 Dr. Kildare (TV) Charles Ladovan "The Administrator"
1962 Saints and Sinners (TV) Preston Cooper "The Man on the Rim"
1961 Wagon Train (TV) John Augustus "The John Augustus Story"
1963 The Great Adventure (TV) Captain Meehan "The Death of Sitting Bull"
"The Massacre at Wounded Knee"
1963 77 Sunset Strip (TV) Arnold Buhler "By His Own Verdict"
1963–1964 Hollywood and the Stars (TV) Narrator
1964 Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte Dr. Drew Bayliss
1965 The Great Sioux Massacre Major Reno
1965 The Money Trap Dr. Horace Van Tilden
1965 The Tramplers Temple Cordeen
1966 The Oscar Kenneth H. Regan
1966 The Hellbenders Col. Jonas
1967 Brighty of the Grand Canyon Jim Owen
1967 Cimarron Strip (TV) Nathan Tio "The Search"
1967 Jack of Diamonds Ace of Diamonds
1967 Some May Live Col. Woodward
1968 Alexander the Great (TV) Antigonus
1968 Gangster '70 Destil
1968 Petulia Mr. Danner
1968 Ironside (TV) Dr. Benjamin Stern "Split Second to an Epitaph"
1968 Journey to the Unknown (TV) Jeff Wheeler "Do Me a Favor and Kill Me"
1968 White Comanche Sheriff Logan
1968 It Takes a Thief (TV) Col. Heinrich "Hans Across the Border"
1969 Latitude Zero Capt. Craig McKenzie, Cmdr. Glenn McKenzie
1969 The Lonely Profession (TV) Martin Bannister
1969–1970 It Takes a Thief (TV) Mr. Jack "To Lure a Man"
"To Sing a Song of Murder"
"Beyond a Reasonable Doubt"
1970 Cutter's Trail (TV) General Spalding
1970 The Name of the Game (TV) Henry Worthington Rayner "The King of Denmark"
1970 The Grasshopper Richard Morgan
1970 Tora! Tora! Tora! Henry L. Stimson
1970 The Virginian (TV) Judge Will McMasters
Judge Hobbs
"A Time of Terror"
"Gun Quest"
1971 Assault on the Wayne (TV) Admiral
1971 Do You Take This Stranger? (TV) Dr. Robert Carson
1971 City Beneath the Sea (TV) Dr. Ziegler
1971 NET Playhouse (TV) Narrator "Trail of Tears"
1971 The Abominable Dr. Phibes Dr. Vesalius
1971 Lady Frankenstein Dr. Frankenstein
1972 The Screaming Woman (TV) George Tresvant
1972 Doomsday Voyage Captain Jason
1972 Baron Blood Baron Otto von Kleist / Alfred Becker
1972 The Scientific Cardplayer George
1973 The Devil's Daughter (TV) Judge Weatherby
1973 The Streets of San Francisco (TV) John R. James "A Collection of Eagles"
1973 Soylent Green William R. Simonson
1973 A Delicate Balance Harry
1973 F for Fake
1974 The Rockford Files (TV) Warner Jameson "This Case is Closed"
1975 Syndicate Sadists Paternò
1975 Timber Tramps Greedy sawmill mogul
1976 Freedom Is (TV) Voice
1976 The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case (TV) Dr. Condon
1976 A Whisper in the Dark The Professor
1976 Origins of the Mafia (TV) The Envoy "Gli antenati"
1977 Twilight's Last Gleaming Arthur Renfrew, Secretary of State
1977 Airport '77 Nicholas St. Downs III
1977 Aspen (TV) Horton Paine
1978 The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries (TV) Weldon Rathbone "Arson and Old Lace"
1978 Last In, First Out (fr) Foster Johnson
1978 Caravans Crandall
1978 The Perfect Crime Sir Arthur Dundee
1978 Fantasy Island (TV) Simon Grant "Return to Fantasy Island"
1979 Island of the Fishmen Prof. Ernest Marvin
1979 Concorde Affaire '79 Milland
1979 Guyana: Crime of the Century Richard Gable
1979 Fantasy Island (TV) Thomas Cummings "The Wedding"
1979–1980 Tales of the Unexpected (TV) Edward
"Edward the Conqueror"
"Depart in Peace"
1980 The Hearse Walter Prichard
1980 Casino (TV) Ed Booker
1980 Heaven's Gate The Reverend Doctor
1980 Delusion Ivar Langrock
1981 Churchill and the Generals (TV) General George Marshall
1981 The Love Boat (TV) Col. van Ryker "The Duel"
Two for Julie"
"Aunt Hilly"
1981 The Survivor Priest


  1. ^ a b Oliver, Myrna (February 7, 1994). "Debonair Actor Joseph Cotten Dies at 88". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2014-03-09. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Cotten, Joseph, Vanity Will Get You Somewhere. San Francisco: Mercury House. 1987 ISBN 0-916515-17-6
  3. ^ Leaming, Barbara (1985). Orson Welles. New York City: Viking Penguin Inc. p. 114. ISBN 0-670-52895-1. 
  4. ^ a b c Welles, Orson, and Peter Bogdanovich, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum, This is Orson Welles. New York: HarperCollins Publishers 1992 ISBN 0-06-016616-9.
  5. ^ New York Times, "Early Film of Orson Welles is Rediscovered," August 7, 2013.
  6. ^ "Bing Crosby Again Box-Office Leader: Van Johnson Second in Film Poll of Exhibitors – Rogers Wins for Westerns". The New York Times. December 28, 1945. p. 21.
  7. ^ "Sabrina Fair". Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved 2014-03-25. 
  8. ^ Becker, Christine (October 1, 2005). "Televising Film Stardom in the 1950s". Framework. Retrieved 21 January 2015 – via HighBeam Research. (subscription required (help)). 
  9. ^ "The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, May 2, 1957". Retrieved 2014-05-21. 
  10. ^ Actor winning battle against stroke
  11. ^ Tarbox, Todd, Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts. Albany, Georgia: BearManor Media, 2013, ISBN 1-59393-260-X.
  12. ^ "'Citizen Kane' star releases witty, irreverent autobiography". The Tuscaloosa News (Associated Press), June 7, 1987. Retrieved 2014-03-25. 
  13. ^ Flint, Peter B. (February 7, 1994). "Joseph Cotten, 88, Is Dead; Actor on Stage and in Films". The New York Times. Retrieved May 7, 2010. 
  14. ^ Joseph Cotten – Petersburg, Virginia.
  15. ^ Joseph Cotten at Find a Grave

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