Cotten, Joseph Cheshire

views updated

Cotten, Joseph Cheshire

(b. 15 May 1905 in Petersburg, Virginia; d. 6 February 1994 in Los Angeles, California), stage, radio, and screen actor who worked with the Mercury Theatre and appeared in such films as Citizen Kane (1941), A Portrait of Jennie (1948), and The Third Man (1949).

Cotten, the eldest of three sons born to Joseph Cheshire Cotten, a postal employee, and Sally Willson, a homemaker, grew up in the Tidewater region of Virginia and spent many summers at his uncle’s cottage at Virginia Beach. After attending Petersburg High School, where he played center for the football team for three years and acted in drama productions, he moved to Washington, D.C., in 1923. An aunt who resided there encouraged him to sign up for elocution lessons at the Hickman School of Expression with English-born Robert Nugent Hickman. While studying at the school, Cotten supplemented financial assistance from his family by working as a professional football player (at $25 per quarter-game) and as a lifeguard. After receiving a certificate in the summer of 1923, he went to New York City in 1924 to seek acting roles; meanwhile, he worked at various jobs, including selling paint. When he relocated to Miami two years later, his jobs included packaging potato salad for the Tip-Top Salad Company, selling advertisements for the Miami Herald, and contributing theatrical reviews about the Miami Civic Theatre.

At the Miami Civic Theatre, Cotten acted in five plays and met his first wife, Lenore Kipp La Mont, and her daughter from her first marriage. On returning to New York, Cotten presented a letter of introduction to David Belasco, who hired him as assistant stage manager and understudy to Lynne Overman in Dancing Partner (1930) and then to Melvyn Douglas in Tonight or Never (1930). From 1931 to 1932 Cotten acted in numerous productions with Boston’s Copley Square Theatre. During the summer of 1932 he worked in summer stock at Richmond, Virginia, and Bar Harbor, Maine. He married La Mont on 18 October 1931.

Cotten made his Broadway debut in a minor role in the short-lived Absent Father (1932); subsequent New York performances included Dick Ashley in Jezebel (1933) and a policeman in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1936). Cotten auditioned for radio, a medium most suitable to his unique voice, which was calm and firm, resonant and mellifluous. During one assignment for CBS Radio’s School of the Air, Cotten worked with the up-and-coming actor-director genius of radio, stage, and screen, Orson Welles. Welles went on to assign Cotton a lead in the Federal Theatre Project production of Horse Eats Hat (1936). When Welles and John Houseman established the Mercury Theatre in 1937, Cotten appeared in most of the productions: Welles’s fascinating rendering of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1937), as Publius; the period-dress comedy The Shoemaker’s Holiday (1938), with Vincent Price; and Danton’s Death (1938), which closed the Mercury Theatre. Cotten also appeared in Too Much Johnson (1938), for which Welles shot silent-film footage.

Cotten’s first true stage hit was his role as C. K. Dexter Haven in The Philadelphia Story (1939–1940), starring Katharine Hepburn and Van Heflin. For that role the six-foot, two-inch, blue-eyed actor darkened his blond curly hair. Before the cast’s national tour, however, his agent sent him to Hollywood in 1940. There, Welles arranged with RKO Pictures for Cotten to star as Jedediah Leland (from a young man through his octogenarian years) with other Mercury Theatre actors in Welles’s first and perhaps greatest film as actor and director, Citizen Kane (1941).

Cotten’s next roles with Welles were Eugene Morgan in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Howard Graham in Journey into Fear (1942). Before the end of the decade Cotten again appeared with Welles as Holly Martins in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). Welles remained one of Cotten’s closest professional and personal friends, and Cotten took small roles in several of Welles’s later films, including Touch of Evil (1958) and Vérités et mensonges (F for Fake, 1974).

Other motion picture work in the 1940s included Lydia (1941), Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), in which Cotten played the murderous Uncle Charlie, the award-winning Gaslight (1944), and home-front war films such as Since You Went Away (1944) and I’ll Be Seeing You (1944). In 1942 Cotten signed a seven-year contract with David O. Selznick. From 1943 to 1944 Cotten performed many Sundays on CBS Radio’s Ceiling Zero/Rigdan Amazon-Ceiling Unlimited program. During September and October 1943 Cotten, appearing as Jo-Jo the Great, joined Welles, Rita Hayworth, and later her replacement Marlene Dietrich, and others in The Mercury Wonder Show, a ninety-minute magic show performed for U.S. troops in the Los Angeles area under a huge tent in Hollywood.

The immediate postwar years saw Cotten costarring with Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck in a Western, Duel in the Sun (1946); with Loretta Young and Ethel Barrymore in The Farmer’s Daughter (1947); and with Jones in William Dieterle’s surrealistic romance A Portrait of Jennie (1948). For this film, Cotten was recognized as best actor with the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival in 1949.

Cotten acted in more than sixty films through the early 1980s (including Italian, German, and Japanese productions), but those from the 1950s on, though he always gave solid, attractive performances, usually lacked high-quality scripts and rarely became popular successes. Among these later films, The Steel Trap (1952), Niagara (1953), Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1965), Petulia (1968), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), and A Delicate Balance (1973) deserve special attention.

Cotten returned to Broadway as Linus Larrabee, Jr., in the hit Sabrina Fair (1953) and as Victor Fabian in the moderately successful Once More with Feeling (1958) with Arlene Francis.

During the filming in Italy of The Angel Wore Red (1960), his wife, who arrived for Christmas, was diagnosed with leukemia and died in Rome on 7 January 1960. Cotten then married the English-born actress Patricia Medina on 20 October 1960. After honeymooning, they returned to Cotten’s home, Villa Tramonto, overlooking the ocean in the Pacific Palisades, California. They never had children. Occasionally they appeared together on stage.

Cotten had returned to radio in 1953 as narrator and actor on ABC’s Philco Radio Playhouse and acted in the Mutual Broadcasting System’s The Private Files of Dr. Matthew Bell. Within a few years he tried television, which provided him with a wide range of projects over the next decades as performer, host, and narrator. His dramatic television debut was in “The High Green Wall,” an episode of General Electric Theater (1954). He acted in State of the Union (1954) and hosted and narrated CBS’s The Twentieth Century-Fox Hour during its first season in 1955. He also hosted the dramatic anthology series On Trial, which premiered in 1956; the title was changed to The Joseph Cotten Show on 1 February 1957, and it ran off and on until September 1959. From the 1950s through the early 1980s Cotten starred in other dramatic anthologies and various specials and made guest appearances on prime-time weekly series; the years 1956–1957 and 1967–1972 were particularly busy for him on television. He also hosted the National Broadcasting Company’s weekly half-hour documentary series Hollywood and the Stars (1963–1964) and played Dr. Joseph Francis Condon in The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case (1976) and General George C. Marshall in Churchill and the Generals (1979).

In the early 1970s Cotten and his wife sold Villa Tramonto. While on tour in Phoenix with The Reluctant Debutante (1974–1975), Cotten consulted doctors about throat problems. As he battled cancer of the vocal cords, he suffered a heart attack at home on 8 June 1981, followed by a stroke that ultimately required speech therapy. After he had a laryngectomy in April 1989, his entire larynx was eventually removed and a prosthesis inserted. The immediate cause of death was pneumonia. Cotten is buried at Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg.

Whether on radio or screen, Cotten’s most distinctive asset was his voice, as he himself admitted. His handsome, gentlemanly appearance was, of course, no hindrance to his portrayals in motion pictures or television. He was one of those many Hollywood actors whose outstanding interpretations of various roles can be so vividly recalled—as in Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Shadow of a Doubt, Since You Went Away, The Farmer’s Daughter, A Portrait of Jennie, and The Third Man.

The Joseph Cotten Collection at the University of Southern California, Cinema-Television Library contains photographs and scrapbooks from stage and screen through the 1940s that Cotten donated during his lifetime. Cotten wrote an autobiography, Vanity Will Get You Somewhere (1987); his widow, Patricia Medina, also wrote some anecdotes, emphasized her late husband’s charitable nature, and detailed the sufferings of his final years with cancer in Laid Back in Hollywood: Remembering (1998); the photographs in both books are excellent. Discussions of Cotten are in Ronald Bowers, “Joseph Cotten,” in his The Selznick Players (1976), pp. 174-195, excellent with its format of essay, biography, photographs, and filmography; and David Shipman, “Joseph Cotten,” in his The Great Movie Stars: The International Years, vol. 2 (1995), pp. 111–115. For extensive bibliographies primarily in Hollywood journals, see Mel Schuster, Motion Picture Performers: A Bibliography of Magazine and Periodical Articles, 1900–1969 (1971), and Supplement No. 1, 1970–1974 (1976). For a focus on his association with the Mercury Theatre and with Orson Welles, see Bret Wood, Orson Welles: A Bio-Bibliography (1990). Obituaries are in the New Yor/(Times and Los Angeles Times (both 7 Feb. 1994), and Variety (14 Feb. 1994). Joseph Cotton was interviewed on 28 August 1980 as part of a project on the Mercury Theatre/Theater Union; the interview is available at the Columbia University Oral History Collection, New York City.

Madeline Sapienza