Joseph Cotten

Film actor Joseph Cotten was a member of Orson Welles Mercury Theater radio ensemble. He also appeared in the movie Citizen Kane.


Born in Petersburg, Virginia, Joseph Cotten was a member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theater radio ensemble beginning in 1937. He appeared in the Broadway production of The Philadelphia Story (1939–1940) before joining Welles on the big screen to co-star in Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Journey Into Fear (1943). Cotten's many other films include Gaslight (1944), The Third Man (1949), The Oscar (1966) and Heaven's Gate (1980). He died on February 6, 1994 in Los Angeles.

Early Years

Joseph Cotten was born on May 15, 1905, in Petersburg, Virginia to a prosperous Southern family. After moving to Washington, D.C., Cotten studied at the Hickman School of Expression and then moved to New York City in 1924 to make his way in the theater world. Getting onto the New York stage was tougher than Cotten thought it would be, and he ended up working as a shipping clerk for a year before switching paths and heading south to Miami with friends.

In Florida, Cotten supported himself with an odd assortment of jobs, including lifeguard, potato salad merchandiser and, more appropriately, an ad salesman/drama critic for the Miami Herald. What most likely interested Cotten more than any of his jobs was the time he spent acting in plays at the Miami Civic Theater. That work led him back to New York, when a connection he made at the Herald helped Cotten get a job as an assistant stage manager.

With Orson Welles

Joseph Cotten made his Broadway debut in 1930 and he began working on radio shows soon after. He also married during this period, and he would be with Lenore La Mont from 1931 until her 1960 death. Regularly auditioning and acting at this juncture, Cotten met a young man at one audition who would change the course of his career: Orson Welles. In 1937, Cotten joined Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre company, where he took the lead in such plays as Shoemaker’s Holiday and Julius Caesar. (Welles was always greatly influenced by Shakespearean drama.

Cotten jumped off the radio and stage and onto the big screen in 1941, making his Hollywood feature debut in Welles’ first movie, Citizen Kane. The epic, focusing on the life of a newspaper mogul, was written and directed by and starred Welles (at the age of 25), who went on to become one of the most respected films in Hollywood history. Cotten would find his finest roles in Welles’ films, and the pair followed Citizen Kane with another masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons, in 1942, and Journey Into Fear, which was co-written by Cotten and Welles, in 1943.

Other notable films in Cotten’s oeuvre include Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949; in which Welles plays a pivotal role) and Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), in which Cotten had an uncredited cameo. 

Later TV and Film Roles

When his film career floundered during the 1950s and '60s, Cotten found a new home on TV, appearing on such shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and hosting The 20th Century-Fox Hour and The Joseph Cotten Show. He also appeared in a long array of TV and film projects over the ensuing decades, including The Money Trap (1965), City Beneath the Sea (1971), Soylent Green (1973) and Heaven's Gate (1980). An on-and-off writer, Cotten published his autobiography, Vanity Will Get You Somewhere, in 1987, just a few years after suffering a stroke and heart attack.

Joseph Cotten died of pneumonia in Los Angeles, California on February 6, 1994. He was survived by his second wife, fellow actor Patricia Medina.

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