Actor. His career spanned the American film, stage, and televisions genres. He was born in Petersburg, Virginia where his father was an assistant postmaster. After high school he studied acting at the Hickman School of Speech and Expression in Washington, DC and then worked as an advertising agent. His work as a theater critic led him to become involved in theater productions in Virginia, and then in New York City, New York. He made his Broadway debut in 1930 and became friends with famed actor and movie director Orson Welles. After obtaining roles in some of Welles' theater productions in the mid-1930s, he became an inaugural member of Welles' Mercury Theater company in 1937 and starred in the Broadway productions of "Julius Caesar," "The Shoemaker's Holiday," and "Danton's Death." He made his film debut in Welles' "Too Much Johnson" but it was never screened in public and the film was ultimately lost or destroyed. In 1939 he returned to Broadway and starred in the role of C.K. Dexter Haven opposite Katharine Hepburn's Tracy Lord in the original production of "The Philadelphia Story." In 1940 he landed the part of Jedediah Leland in Welles' acclaimed film "Citizen Kane" which was released in May 1941. A year later he starred in Welles' adaption and production of "The Magnificent Ambersons." He then wrote the screenplay (with the assistance of Welles) and starred in "Journey into Fear" (1943), but by the time production was completed, Welles had been dropped by RKO Pictures and the film had to be cut to a suitable length as part of the settlement. It became only a minor hit and he and Welles would not collaborate professionally for the next six years. During the remainder of the 1940s he starred in the films "Shadow of a Doubt" (1943), "Gaslight" (1944), "Since You Went Away" (1944), "Love Letters" (1945), "Duel in the Sun' (1946), "Portrait of Jennie" (1948), "The Third Man" (1949), "Under Capricorn" (1949), and "Beyond the Forest" (1949). In the 1950s his film career tapered off with a string of less-high profile roles, including "Two Flags West" (1950, "September Affair" (1950), and "Niagara" (1953). In 1956 he left motion pictures for a string of successful television ventures, such as the NBC series "On Trial" (renamed "The Joseph Cotton Show" at mid-season), and he was often featured on television shows, such as "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and Ronald Reagan's "General Electric Theater." In 1960 he married British actress Patricia Medina after the death of his first wife, Lenore Kipp, from leukemia earlier that year. In 1963 he hosted and narrated the well-remembered television series "Hollywood and the Stars." In 1964 he returned to motion pictures, starring in the horror film classic "Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte," and the rest of the decade found him in a number of European and Japanese B-movies and made-for-television movies. In the 1970s he played a supporting role in the films "Tora! Tora! Tora!" (1970), "The Abominable Dr. Phibes" (1971), "Soylent Green" (1973), "Airport '77" (1977), and "Twilight's Last Gleaming" (1977). One of his last films was "Heaven's Gate" (1980), which was generally considered one of the biggest box office bombs of all time, and in some circles has been considered to be one of the worst films ever made. His autobiography, "Vanity Will Get You Somewhere," was published in 1987. He died at his home in Los Angeles, California of pneumonia due to throat cancer at the age of 88. During his film career he appeared in more than 75 movies. He received a Venice Film Festival Award for Best Actor for his work in "Portrait of Jennie." He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Bio by: William Bjornstad