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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 741

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This is the grave of Joseph Cotten.

Born in 1905 in Petersburg, Virginia, Cotten grew up middle class but not overly prosperous. As a boy, he was tremendously interested in acting, but his family was not really set up to just send him to acting school. So his parents actually took out a significant loan to send him to an arts school in Washington in 1923. Cotten had to work too. He did mostly through playing professional football, as he was an excellent athlete. He was paid by the number of quarters he played in and could make $100 a game if he played in all four quarters. He also worked as a lifeguard and paid his family’s loan back.

Cotten had some trouble breaking into professional acting. He moved to Miami in the 1925 to work as a traveling salesman while he sought to break into the theater. He did begin to have some success on the stage in Miami, but what does that really mean? Not much. He needed to move to New York to see if he was actually going to be a professional actor. He finally made that move in 1930, getting a job as an assistant stage manager on Broadway. But it didn’t take long for him to start getting taken seriously on the stage. He certainly had the look for it. He was Melvyn Douglas’ understudy in the play Tonight or Never and took over the role when it went to Boston. Of course, this was the Depression and things were tough so he also modeled and worked in industrial films. He got some good Broadway roles, but not in plays that were particularly successful.

In 1934, Cotten was working on a CBS radio show titled The American School of the Air. One of his fellow cast members was Orson Welles. They became good friends. This changed his life. Welles recognized what a great actor Cotten could be and as the former was a rising star, started casting in real roles. That began with his Federal Theatre Project play Horse Eats Hat. He then became part of Welles’ Mercury Theatre Company and in a whole bunch of stuff, including Welles’ first film, a short called Too Much Johnson, which was lost soon after but rediscovered a few years ago.

In 1939, Cotten got a plumb Broadway role, playing the lead role alongside Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. He was a big hit, really creating the role, and so was Hepburn. But when the play was adapted for film, Hollywood wanted Hepburn but replaced Cotten with Cary Grant. Now, I can’t say that was a bad choice. Grant is fantastic in the movie. But one has to feel bad for Cotten here too.

But Cotten landed on his feet. That’s because he was cast as the top supporting role in Citizen Kane, playing Kane’s newspaper editor friend. It’s a great, wonderful role in one of the finest films every made. Welles brought a lot of actors out of obscurity for this film–Agnes Moorhead, Ray Collins, Ruth Warrick. But none launched to as big a level of stardom as Cotten. Of course, Citizen Kane itself was a financial disaster thanks to William Randolph Hearst’s hatred of the parody of his life. Cotten was then the star of The Magnificent Ambersons, the 1942 Welles follow up that was chopped to bits by the studio already wishing it had never made a deal with Welles. He followed this up with a number of choice roles through the 1940. That included Norman Foster’s Journey Into Fear, which Cotten helped write. Hitchcock then picked him to star as the lead in the great Shadow of a Doubt, from 1943. He was in Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman in 1944. David O. Selznick bought his contract from Welles and he was a very active actor for the next several years.

But honestly, most of Cotten’s films after Gaslight are pretty whatever. What seemed like a potentially great actor ended up being a friendly face in a lot of Hollywood studio films that are perfectly capable, but not particularly memorable. Some of his leading roles in these years included I’ll Be Seeing You with Shirley Temple and Ginger Rogers, Love Letters with Jennifer Jones, and Duel in the Sun with Jones and Gregory Peck. Probably Cotten’s last truly great role was in The Third Man, the truly wondrous Carol Reed film starring Welles. The single greatest travel moment of my life was riding the Ferris wheel in Vienna where Welles and Cotten have their epic conversation.

By the 50s, Cotten was in a string of increasingly disappointing films. Some of these were with big name directors still. But Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn is definitely not among the master’s top films. Other films included September Affair with Joan Fontaine, The Man with a Cloak with Barbara Stanwyck, and The Steel Trap with Theresa Wright.

After about 1953, Cotten moved heavily back into theatre. He played the lead role in Sabrina Fair on Broadway, which was the source material for the film Sabrina, but again, he was passed over for the lead in the film for Humphrey Bogart, which one can’t really complain about. He spent much of the rest of his career switching between TV appearances, supporting actor roles in films, and the occasional lead. The best of these include Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte but most were more like his work in Soylent Green or Airport ’77, or even worse–mediocrities. He later stated that “I was in a lot of junk.” Indeed. He was not choosy with his roles as all and never really was. He preferred working in bad productions than not working at all, so he didn’t really do much to ensure that he was in the right roles. And like any aging actor of the time, he appeared on The Love Boat.

Cotten suffered a stroke in 1981. That ended his acting career. He did eventually learn to speak again, but it took some years. Welles spent a lot of time with his old friend at this time, talking to him on the phone, helping him with his words, and doing whatever he could to nurture him back to health. However, he lost his voice permanently in 1990 when his larnyx was removed due to cancer. He died in 1994, of pneumonia, at the age of 88.

Joseph Cotten is buried in Blandford Cemetery, Petersburg, Virginia. He is there with his second wife, the actress Patricia Medina, who will get a post of her own in this series.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader donations. Many thanks! If you would like this series to visit other actors involved with Orson Welles, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Welles’ ashes were placed in some well in Spain, so that’s not going to happen. Agnes Moorehead is in Dayton, Ohio and Ray Collins is in Los Angeles. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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