Job Actor
Years active 1930-1981
Known for Quiet and taciturn
Top Roles Allen Quinton, Brian Cameron, Glenn Morley, Jedediah Leland, Augustus Billings
Top GenresDrama, Romance, Thriller/Suspense, Crime, Western, Film Noir
Top TopicsBook-Based, Aviation, Romance (Drama)
Top Collaborators , (Producer), (Director), (Director)
Shares birthday with James Mason, Elmer C. Rhoden, Nicholas Hammond  see more..

Joseph Cotten Overview:

Legendary actor, Joseph Cotten, was born Joseph Cheshire Cotten on May 15, 1905 in Petersburg, VA. Cotten appeared in over 130 film and TV roles. His best known films include Citizen Kane (1941 debut feature film), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Journey into Fear (1943), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Love Letters (1945), Duel in the Sun (1946), The Farmer's Daughter (1947), Portrait of Jennie (1948), The Third Man (1949) and Niagara (1953). Cotten is also credited with writing the screenplay for Journey Into Fear. Cotten died at the age of 88 on Feb 6, 1994 in Westwood, CA and was laid to rest in Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Petersburg City, VA.

Early Life

Joseph Cheshire Cotten, Jr. was born on May 15th, 1905 in Petersburg, Virginia and was the eldest son of a wealthy southern family. His father worked as an assistant postmaster while his mother was a stay-at-home mom. Cotten's very first job would be working for his father, delivering specialty mail by bike. The young Joseph Cotten would spend his childhood summer with his brother at their aunt's idyllic summer home at Virginia Beach. Cotten discovered his innate sense for story telling and performance at a young age, often performing for his family. This childhood interest would grow into an adolescent passion, with Cotten gaining his first true acting experience in his high school stage productions. More interested in acting than academics, Cotten would end up dropping out of high school, determined to learn the craft of acting. He soon traveled east to Washington D.C to study at the Robert Nugent Hickman School of Expression thanks to a loan from his uncle. After a year of studying, Cotten found work at an advertising agency and played semi-professional football to support himself. In 1924 Cotten moved to New York in hopes of furthering his stage career. He stayed in New York for a year working a paint warehouse but found no luck in his stage ambitions and followed a friend to Miami.

Stage Career

After moving to Miami, Cotten found a few jobs to supporting himself, the most fruitful being at the Miami Herald, where he worked as an ad salesmen and drama critics. This allowed him the time, money, and connections to begin acting in productions at the Miami Civic Theatre. He stayed in Miami for the next five years, working up a reputation at the Civic Theatre and even reviewing himself in The Herald. In 1930 Cotten was able to return New York thanks to connection at the Herald landing him a job as an assistant stage manager. He also began to work an understudy in hopes of further his craft. Soon after he traveled to Boston for a season at the Coley Theatre, where he appeared in 30 productions. He traveled back to New York but with the onset of the Great Depression, work was hard to come by and Cotten turned to modeling and radio shows to make end meet. His likeness was even seen on the September 1931 cover of American Magazine. In 1932 he made his Broadway debut in the Lionel Bevan's production as Larry in Absent Father.

Orson Welles

Through the early and mid-thirties, Cotten split his time between radio and theatre. It was while at an audition for CBS radio show that he would meet the man that help shape the trajectory of his career, Orson Welles. Although Welles was ten-year Cotten's junior, the two formed a fast friendship. In 1935 Welles was hired as a director for the National Theatre Project. The program was part of Roosevelt's New Deal policies to put out-of-work theatre folk back on the stage. Welles then cast Cotten was the lead in his farce play Horse Eats Hat. Two years later when Welles formed the Mercury Theatre, Cotten followed. Their first production was The Tragedy of Julius Caesar set in contemporary fascist Italy with Cotten playing the part of Publius. The play was a massive success. He then starred in the company's next production, The Shoe Maker's Holiday. In 1939, Cotten stepped back from the Mercury Theatre to star as C.K Dexter Haven in the original Broadway Production The Philadelphia Story opposite Katharine Hepburn. Although he was well reviewed, when it was time to make the film version of the play, the role went to Cary Grant. Although disappointed, Cotten would still headed west, deciding to give Hollywood a try.

Hollywood with Welles

In 1939, Orson Welles signed an unprecedented three-picture contract with RKO that gave him complete creative control over his films. A year later, he began work on Citizen Kane. Because of his contract, he was able to bring the Mercury Theater players with him to star in the movie. Cotten was given the role of Jedediah Leland, best friend to the films protagonist, Charles Foster Kane and drama critic to Kane's Newspaper empire. Because of the political controversy surrounding the film, the film did not receive commercial success, but did fair well with critics. It would go on to be nominated for nine Oscars, winning one for Best Screenwriting. It has since been ranked as the number one film of all time according to the American Film Institute. Cotten next starred Orson Welles second film The Magnificent Ambersons. Unfortunately, after the commercial failure of Citizen Kane, RKO was feeling far less confident in their investment and after poor preview reviews, they cut the film by nearly an hour and tacked on a happier ending - all without Welles permission. Despite the massive cutting, it was reviewed well by critics with much of the praise going to Cotten. His next film was the 1943 spy-thriller Journey into Fear opposite Dolores Del Rio. The film was written by Cotten and Welles with Welles once again taking the directors seat. Although the film was a minor hit, the two would not work together again until 1949.

Solo Success

In 1943 Cotten signed a contract with producer David O' Selznick, who championed the actor is much the same way Welles did. His first Selznick film was opposite Teresa Wright in Alfred Hitchcocks Shadow of a Doubt. In the film, Cotten plays Charlie, serial killer who escapes to his family's small hometown and in the process disillusions his young nice (Wright), also named Charlie. Although the film was a not a commercial success when released, it was reviewed very positively. The film has since been declared by Hitchcock as his personal favorite. The next year starred opposite Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in the George Cukor psychological drama Gaslight. That same year he demonstrated his ability to play a romantic lead in film like Since You Went Away opposite Jennifer Jones and I'll Be Seeing You opposite Gingers Rogers. In 1946 he starred opposite Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck in the King Vidor Western Duel in the Sun. In 1948 he would team with Jennifer Jones for the fantasy romance Portrait of Jennie. In the film, Cotten plays starving artist, Eben Adams, who finds inspiration in a young but mysterious women name Jennie. In 1949 he reteamed with Alfred Hitchcock for Under Capricorn. Although the film faired well in France, it bombed in the United States, ranking number 90 at the box-office.  That same year reteamed with Orson Welles for the first time in six years with Carol Reed's The Third Man. In the film Cotten portrayer cynical pulp-fiction writer Holly Martins who travels in post-war Austria in hopes of figuring out mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of his friend, Harry Lime (Welles). The film was critical and commercial success and ranks as one of the best film-noirs of all time.


As the decade rolled in Cotten's career began losing steam. Although he still remained just as busy, he was no longer appearing in the high profile films he was in the 1940's  In 1950 he appeared in the Civil War drama Two Flags West. He next starred opposite Loretta Young in the Richard Sale Comedy Half Angel. In 1952 he starred opposite Shirley Winters in the forgettable western, Untamed Frontier. The next year he managed to score a decent role opposite Marilyn Monroe in the film-noir Niagara.  The film noted for it's great use of Technicolor, a rarity among the genre.  The film was fairly reviewed and became one of Fox's biggest hits of the year. That same year Cotten returned to New York to star in the Broadway play Sabrina Fair, thus become the original Linus Larrabee, Jr. When the play was to made in to a film, much like The Philadelphia Story, he was once again passed over in favor a larger star, Humphrey Bogart. After staring in a series of forgettable films noirs, Cotten turned his attention to the new medium of television. He was featured on shows such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, General Electric Theatre, Playhouse 90 and even his own series, On Trial, which was later renames The Joseph Cotten Show: On Trial. In 1958 he made an uncredited appearance in Orson Welles' film noir Touch of Evil.

Later Career and Life

Cotten remained busy on television through out the early sixties, appearing in shows like Saints and Sinners, Wagon Train and 77 Sunset. In 1964 he returned to the screen with the gothic horror film Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte opposite Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland and fellow Mercury Theatre alumni, Agnes Moorehead. For remained of the decade, Cotten remained on T.V or appeared in B-move productions. In 1970 he appeared in the War Epic Tora, Tora, Tora, which chronicled the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The next year he starred opposite Vincent Price in the British horror film The Abominable Dr. Phibes. He followed that up with another horror film, Lady Frankenstein. In 1973 Cotten played a supporting role in the sci-fi thriller, Soylent Green appearing with Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson. Later he appeared in the popular ensemble disaster film that trended in the 1970's,including Airport 77. He continued to act on mostly horror B-films and television into the early 1980's  while having the dubious honor of appearing in what is considered one of the worst films of all time, Heavens Gate, in 1980. His final screen appearance was in the 1982 horror film The Survivor after which he quietly slipped into the quiet life of retirement. Although retired, he did not remain idol and returned to writing. In 1987, he published his autobiography the very popular Vanity Will Get You Somewhere. Joseph Cotten died On February 6, 1994 of pneumonia in Los Angels, California. He was 88 years old.

(Source: article by Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub).



He was honored with one star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the category of Motion Pictures. Cotten was never nominated for an Academy Award.

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Joseph Cotten Quotes:

Leland: You don't care about anything except you. You just want to persuade people that you love 'em so much that they ought to love you back. Only you want love on your own terms. Something to be played your way, according to your rules.

Senator Hugh B. Emmett: Sergeant, we would like to get the point of view of the soldiers about several things.
Zachary Morgan: Soldiers?
Senator Hugh B. Emmett: Yes. We would like to know from you what the soldier thinks.
Zachary Morgan: Thinks about what?
Senator Hugh B. Emmett: Thinks about political issues.
Zachary Morgan: Senator, I don't know. What gives you the idea that just because a fellow puts on a soldier suit he thinks any differently from anybody else?
[looking around at the soldiers around him]
Zachary Morgan: What does the soldier think? I tell you, last time some of us voted for Roosevelt, and some of us didn't. Some of us weren't old enough to vote. Some soldiers think labor's got a right to strike, and some soldiers think labor's got no rights at all. A lot of soldiers got one idea about what should happen after war, a lot of soldiers have other ideas. Me? I haven't the slightest notion what a lot of soldiers think. Senator, thanks for the cigar.

Lieutenant Tony Willett: [sirens wailing] Uh-oh. Yep. It's one of them all right.
Mrs. Anne Hilton: What have we been doing? You weren't speeding.
Lieutenant Tony Willett: Have things changed around here? Do you have to be doing something now before you get a ticket?
Police Officer: Where do you think you're going?
Lieutenant Tony Willett: I wish I knew. What's your guess? Gibralter? New Guinea? Kiska?
Police Officer: You stationed around here?
Lieutenant Tony Willett: Well, yes and no. Look officer, I don't want to be rude, but we're not in a particularly chatty frame of mind. So, would you mind filling out one of those pretty little slips and getting it over with?
Police Officer: You weren't doing anything.
Lieutenant Tony Willett: I wasn't?
Mrs. Anne Hilton: Well, what's all this about?
Police Officer: Oh, it's just that it gets so lonely along this road since gas rationing. And say, ain't it a beautiful night?
Mrs. Anne Hilton: Well, I hadn't noticed it before, but now that you mention it, officer.
Police Officer: Well, guess I'd better be checking in. Nice to met up with you folks.
Mrs. Anne Hilton: Good night.
Police Officer: Get one of them Japs for me!
Lieutenant Tony Willett: If I lay my hands on one, I'll give him a ticket!

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Joseph Cotten Facts
Had a step-daughter from first marriage.

Was cast as C.K. Dexter Haven in the original 1939 Broadway production of Philip Barry's play Philadelphia StoryZ with Katharine Hepburn. When Hepburn, who owned the rights, sold the story to MGM, Cary Grant was cast in the part.

Uncle of Joseph Cotten.

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