Actor Joseph Cotten, best remembered for his central roles in such classics as “Citizen Kane,””The Magnificent Ambersons” and “Shadow of a Doubt,” died Sunday of pneumonia at his home in Westwood. He was 88.
Cotten’s career peaked at the mid-century mark, perhaps a sign of his own limited ambitions. “Movies and theaters aren’t life,” he once said. “They’re only part of it. We make a living out of acting and pray we don’t get associated with too much junk.”
Unfortunately, after 1950, Cotten didn’t make the transitionfrom leading man to character actor. But during the 1930s and ’40s, he worked steadily in the theater and in movies. He made strong impressions in the Broadway version of “The Philadelphia Story” opposite Katharine Hepburn and in several Mercury Theatre productions by his close friend Orson Welles, whom he met during the Depression. He appeared in Welles’ innovative stagings of “Julius Caesar” and “The Shoemaker’s Holiday.”
And when the enfant terrible came to Hollywood, he offered Cotten major roles in his first three productions, “Kane,””Ambersons” and “Journey into Fear.”
The 6-foot-2, blue-eyed actor was born May 15, 1905, in Petersburg, Va., and studied for the stage at Hickman School of Expression in Washington, D.C. His first job was as a paint salesman. He then started the Tip-Top Salad Company, packaging potato salad for sale in drugstores. When the company went out of business and he found himself unemployed in Miami, he joined the Miami Herald as an ad salesman, and subsequently wrote drama criticism.
A letter of introduction led him to Broadway producer David Belasco, who cast him as an understudy in the play “Dancing Partner.” Roles in “Absent Father, “”Accent on Youth” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” followed.
It was his work for Welles that led him to Hollywood and the role of cynical drama critic Jedediah Leland in “Kane,” which required him to age 50 years. Hewas no less memorable in “Ambersons” as Dolores Costello’s thwarted romantic interest.
But it was his role in “Lydia,” opposite Merle Oberon, that established him as a viable romantic leading man.
Based on these early roles, in 1942 he was signed to a long-term contract by producer David O. Selznick, and had the good fortune to be immediately loaned out to appear in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt.” His Uncle Charlie, adored and then feared by his niece (Teresa Wright), also named Charlie, provides one of the more memorable dramatic conflicts in Hitchcock’s films. It remained the director’s favorite film.
Throughout the rest of the decade Cotten was handed plum assignments in such Selznick films as “Since You Went Away” and “Gaslight.” He was cast opposite Jennifer Jones in “Love Letters,””Duel in the Sun” and “Portrait of Jennie.”
The 1949 Carol Reed production “The Third Man,” which co-starred Welles, was Cotten’s last memorable film. As Holly Martins, a pulp fiction writer, duped by his best friend Harry Lime (Welles), he has a memorable fadeout sitting on a bench on a lonely Vienna street waiting for Alida Valli, who walks by him without uttering a word.
Cotten continued as a leading man in Hitchcock’s “Under Capricorn” and King Vidor’s “Beyond the Forest,” opposite Bette Davis, but by the 1950s was playing either hapless heroes, as in “The Steel Trap,” or cuckolded husbands in films such as “Niagara.”
Although he continued to work steadily, Cotten was never much better than the material he was given. When it was good, as in “Petulia,””A Delicate Balance” and “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” he was up to the chore. But more often, in films like “Airport ’77,” he seemed to be weighted down by the lugubriousness of the production.
Cotten’s first wife died in 1961. He is survived by his second wife, actress Patricia Medina.
Services will be private. Memorial donations may be made to the Motion Picture & Television Fund.