Joseph Cheshire Cotten (15 May 1905–6 February 1994), actor, was born in Petersburg. His parents, Sally Willson Cotten and Joseph Cheshire Cotten, hoped that he would follow an uncle into the banking business, but at Petersburg High School his interests lay in sports and theater. While attending the Hickman School of Speech and Expression, in Washington, D.C., in 1923, Cotten tried to lose his southern accent and supported himself by playing center on a semiprofessional football team. In 1924 he made an unsuccessful attempt to break onto the Broadway stage but spent most of his time in New York working in a paint warehouse. Cotten then tried his luck in Miami, where with a friend he manufactured and sold potato salad, an unlicensed enterprise health inspectors closed down. Cotten sold advertising in the Miami Herald, for which he also occasionally wrote reviews. He appeared with the Miami Civic Theatre and at least once glowingly reviewed his own performance for the Herald.

Early Stage Career
In the summer of 1930 Cotten returned to New York and secured an introduction to the celebrated theatrical impresario David Belasco, who hired him as assistant stage manager for Dancing Partner. In Belasco's next production, Tonight or Never (1930), Cotten was Melvyn Douglas's understudy. The Copley Theatre, in Boston, engaged him for the 1931–1932 season. While in Miami, Cotten had met West Virginia native Lenore Kipp La Mont, a pianist and divorcée with one young daughter. They married in Nashua, New Hampshire, on 18 October 1931 and registered their union in Boston the next month. They had no children.

Over the next few years Cotten appeared occasionally on Broadway, including productions of Jezebel (1933) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1936). Under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration's Federal Theatre Project he starred in the farce Horse Eats Hat (1936), directed by Orson Welles. Using the stage name Joseph Wooll, he performed a small role in Welles's landmark, racially integrated production of Christopher Marlowe's Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1937). After Welles helped found the Mercury Theater in 1937, Cotten joined that company and played in a minimalist, modern-dress Julius Caesar (1937), in The Shoemakers' Holiday (1938), and in Danton's Death (1938).

In 1939 Cotten created the role of C. K. Dexter Haven opposite Katharine Hepburn in the Broadway production of The Philadelphia Story. Although he was passed over in favor of Cary Grant when filming of the movie version began in 1940, he went to Hollywood and with other Mercury Theater veterans was recruited for Welles's masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941), in which Cotten played the idealistic drama critic Jedediah Leland. After starring in Alexander Korda's Lydia (1941), Cotten appeared in Welles's production of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Cotten assisted Welles in adapting the screenplay for the World War II spy thriller Journey into Fear (1942) and starred in the film. The two remained close friends until Welles's death in 1985, and Cotten made uncredited appearances as a Venetian senator in Welles's Othello (1952) and as an alcoholic coroner in Touch of Evil (1958).

In 1942 Cotten became a contract player for David O. Selznick, an independent producer with whom he became fast friends. Selznick lent Cotten to Universal Studios for Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943), in which the same honesty that Cotten displayed in his romantic roles rendered him equally believable as Teresa Wright's beloved Uncle Charlie, whom she discovers is a serial killer. He starred with Deanna Durbin in Hers to Hold (1943) and with Claudette Colbert in Since You Went Away (1944). Cotten played a Scotland Yard detective in Gaslight (1944), a traumatized soldier redeemed by parolee Ginger Rogers in I'll Be Seeing You (1944), and a soldier who secretly longs for Jennifer Jones in Love Letters (1945). He appeared with Jones again in Duel in the Sun (1946) and as Loretta Young's employer, political opponent, and love interest in The Farmer's Daughter (1947).

National polls of moviegoers in the mid-1940s routinely placed the debonair, courtly Cotten among their favorite romantic screen actors. During World War II he stumped for the American Red Cross's blood bank, and in October 1947 he flew cross-country to Washington, D.C., with about forty other performers to protest the House Un-American Activities Committee's actions related to the motion picture industry.

Cotten's performance as Eben Adams, an artist obsessed with a mysterious girl, in the haunting Portrait of Jennie (1948) won the International Prize for Best Actor at the 1949 Venice International Film Festival. Perhaps his finest work came under Carol Reed's direction in The Third Man (1949), in which Cotten played Holly Martins, a writer of pulp Westerns searching postwar Vienna for the truth about his best friend, played by Welles.

Compared to his critically acclaimed movies of the 1940s, Cotten's string of films in the 1950s and 1960s was less memorable. He appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Under Capricorn (1949), in King Vidor's Beyond the Forest (1949) with Bette Davis, in Robert Wise's Two Flags West (1950), in September Affair (1950) with Joan Fontaine, in The Man with a Cloak (1951) as the titular Edgar Allan Poe, and in Untamed Frontier (1952). He starred in Niagara (1953) as an unbalanced newlywed whom Marilyn Monroe plots to kill and in From the Earth to the Moon (1958), an awkward adaptation of the Jules Verne novel. Because Cotten played a cowardly Confederate deserter in The Last Sunset (1961), he elicited promises from the director and producer not to release the film in Tidewater Virginia so long as his mother lived.

The Stage and the Small Screen
From 1953 to 1954 Cotten returned to Broadway in the original romantic comedy Sabrina Fair opposite a fellow Virginian, Margaret Brooke Sullavan, but their roles went to Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn in the 1954 film version. In 1958 and 1959 he trod the boards in the comedy Once More, with Feeling with costars Arlene Francis and Walter Matthau. Cotten made frequent guest appearances on television, including several on the original Alfred Hitchcock Presents and as a recurring character on It Takes a Thief (1968–1970). He also hosted three television anthology series, 20th Century—Fox Hour (1955–1956); On Trial, later retitled The Joseph Cotten Show (1956–1959); and Hollywood and the Stars (1963–1964). In the 1960s he pitched Bufferin pain-reliever in television commercials.

Cotten's wife hated traveling, and beginning in the 1940s they were often apart. Both had extramarital affairs. Cotten explained in his memoirs, "I was an actor. A roamer. A lover. I made pictures, I made love, and I made martinis." His wife died of leukemia on 7 January 1960 in Rome while Cotten was there filming The Angel Wore Red with Ava Gardner. On 20 October of that year at the Beverly Hills house of David O. Selznick and Jennifer Jones he married the English actress Patricia Medina, whose first marriage to the actor Richard Greene had ended in divorce in 1952. Cotten and Medina had no children. They starred together on tour in several plays, on Broadway in the murder mystery Calculated Risk (1962), and in the Japanese science-fiction adventure film Latitude Zero (1969).

Later Years
Cotten's later films of note included the gothic Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte (1965), Petulia (1968), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), the campy horror film The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), and Edward Albee's Delicate Balance (1973) with Katharine Hepburn and Paul Scofield. In Soylent Green (1973) he had a small but pivotal role as an executive whose murder sets the plot in motion. As his box office appeal declined, Cotten appeared in the requisite ensemble disaster picture (Airport '77, as Olivia de Havilland's love interest) and in episodes of the star-hungry television anthologies Fantasy Island (1979) and Love Boat (1981). Among his last screen appearances were the Mexican film Guyana, Crime of the Century (1979; released in the United States in 1980 as Guyana, Cult of the Damned) and the big budget Western flop, Heaven's Gate (1980). His final movie was an Australian adaptation of James Herbert's thriller, The Survivor (1981).

Cotten's smooth, cultured voice remained one of his most distinctive attributes. He narrated the Virginia Civil War Centennial Commission's film Manassas to Appomattox, and in 1978 he returned to Petersburg to narrate The Echoes Still Remain, a short film for the Siege Museum. He also recorded She's Called Virginia, a dramatized compilation of the words of famous Virginians from Captain John Smith to Carter Glass and Richard Evelyn Byrd, produced for the centennial of the Life Insurance Company of Virginia in 1971. Cotten was one of thirty-five Virginians honored by the governor in September 1972 for outstanding national achievement in their fields. On that occasion he received a pewter Jefferson cup engraved with the words "distinguished Virginian" and joked to the governor that he considered the phrase redundant.

Cotten suffered a stroke in June 1981 and only with great difficulty learned to speak again. In 1987 he published a stylish autobiography, Vanity Will Get You Somewhere. After cancer forced the removal of his larynx in 1990, Cotten was able to speak using a prosthesis but remained weak. His acting career over, he expressed himself by sculpting whimsical large-scale modern pieces in metal and wood.

Joseph Cheshire Cotten died of pneumonia in his Los Angeles condominium on 6 February 1994. His cremated ashes were returned to his native Petersburg for private burial in Blandford Cemetery. At Petersburg High School the Joseph Cotten Stage honors his achievements.

Sources Consulted:
Cotten, Vanity Will Get You Somewhere (1987), including many portraits, quotation on 73, and partial filmography on 219–220; Patricia Medina Cotten, Laid Back in Hollywood: Remembering (1998); Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Registry of Vital Records and Statistics, Marriage Certificate (1931); California Certificate of Registry of Marriage, Los Angeles Co. (1960); Richmond Times-Dispatch, 29 Sept. 1940; Washington Post, 7 Oct. 1944, 28 Nov. 1956, 17 June 1987; Los Angeles Times, 3 May, 29 July 1987; Miami Sun-Sentinel, 5 July 1987; Charles Slack, "From Petersburg to Tinseltown and Back," 64 1 (Aug. 2000): 44–48; obituaries in Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Petersburg Progress-Index, Richmond Times-Dispatch (with partial filmography), and Washington Post, all 7 Feb. 1994; memorial tributes in Los Angeles Times and Richmond Times-Dispatch, both 8 Feb. 1994.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Sara B. Bearss.

How to cite this page:
Sara B. Bearss,"Joseph Cheshire Cotten (1905–1994)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2006 (, accessed [today's date]).

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