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Debonair Actor Joseph Cotten Dies at 88 : Movies: Performer began his film career in the 1941 classic 'Citizen Kane.' He remained durable throughout, making nearly 60 motion pictures.

February 07, 1994|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joseph Cotten, the enduring, elegant actor whose four decades in movies began at the pinnacle of film lore with the classic "Citizen Kane" and ended less memorably with the stunning flop "Heaven's Gate," died Sunday. He was 88.

Cotten died of pneumonia at his Los Angeles home, said his business manager and lawyer, Hugh Robertson. Cotten's wife, actress Patricia Medina, was with him when he died.

The actor had suffered a debilitating stroke and heart attack in 1981, and fought for years to regain use of his well-known gravelly baritone voice. Troubled intermittently by throat nodules, he had his larynx removed in 1990 because of cancer.

Cotten's earliest films were regarded as his best and his best-known, beginning with "Citizen Kane," Orson Welles' thinly veiled biography of William Randolph Hearst in 1941, in which Cotten played Kane's elderly best friend Jedediah Leland. To follow in the 1940s were memorable roles in "The Magnificent Ambersons," "Shadow of a Doubt," and "Portrait of Jenny" for which he won the 1950 Venice Film Festival prize for best actor. In 1950, he rejoined Welles the actor in the highly successful international thriller "The Third Man."

"Mine was a heady beginning in the movies," Cotten wrote with understatement in his poorly received 1987 autobiography, "Joseph Cotten: Vanity Will Get You Somewhere." "We made a classic without knowing it."

At the other end of his film career, he realized a lifelong thrill in "Heaven's Gate"--opening at Radio City Music Hall. But the irony of the failed film in 1982 was not lost on him, as he wrote in his book: "It was such a disaster that it closed the Music Hall."

But the dapper, debonair Cotten remained durable throughout, always finding work to support his robust appetites for clothes, travel, women, parties and elaborate homes in London, Los Angeles or Palm Springs.

"The persisting core of Cotten's work has been an elegant and unobtrusive craftsmanship which emphasized the role that Cotten was playing rather than the fact that Cotten was playing it," Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin said at the time Cotten's book appeared. "Not often has an important Hollywood personality of Cotten's generation been so deferential to the material itself.

"In a tradition more British than American," Champlin wrote, "he has been the working actor: Have tux, will travel. He has done everything, from 'Petulia' to 'The Abominable Dr. Phibes,' occasionally lending his particular dignity to some very thin texts indeed."

Cotten acted well with, and for, his young friend Welles, and even scripted their "Journey Into Fear" in 1942. His 1936 stage success in "Horse Eats Hat" with Welles for the Federal Theatre Project and his stage triumphs in Welles' Mercury Theater propelled Cotten's career.

Needless to say, Cotten was nonplussed when Welles offered this early appraisal:

"You're very lucky to be tall and thin and have curly hair. You can also move about the stage without running into the furniture. But these are fringe assets, and I'm afraid you'll never make it as an actor.

"But as a star," Welles added, rekindling Cotten's sinking hopes for his future, "I think you well might hit the jackpot."

Born in the Virginia peanut center of Petersburg on May 15, 1905, "Jo" Cotten got his first job working for his father, the city superintendent of mails, distributing special delivery mail by bicycle.

"I had the best pair of legs in the world," Cotten often recalled. "I pedaled a million miles if I pedaled a yard."

He did his first acting in high school, and after dropping out, set out to become an actor. He borrowed $150 from a banker uncle and went to Washington, D.C., to study for a year at the Robert Nugent Hickman School of Expression.

"Mr. Hickman's voice lessons were valuable," he later wrote. "Beyond that, I learned that private acting instruction should be prohibited by law. . . . It is the audience who teaches (an actor) to act, and that can take place only in a theatre."

To support himself in Washington, Cotten sold vacuum cleaners, and on Sundays played semiprofessional football, earning $25 a period, and losing most of it playing craps.

He later went to New York, where he found work in a paint warehouse but failed to launch a theatrical career.

"Without the natural physical endurance of youth, with its blessed ignorance, its lofty arrogance and vanity strong enough to be mistaken for graciousness," he wrote decades later, "all actors would end their careers early."

Lured to Miami by a real estate boom in 1925, Cotten got a job as an advertising salesman for the Miami Herald at $35 a week, which allowed him evenings free to work in the Miami Civic Theatre. A lifelong epicure who enjoyed cooking as well as ordering from menus, he concocted the mayonnaise for something called Tip Top Potato Salad and marketed it, an enterprise that failed only when health authorities put him out of business for lack of a license.

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