Joseph Cheshire Cotten was an American actor of stage and film. Cotten achieved prominence on Broadway, starring in the original productions of The Philadelphia Story and Sabrina Fair. He is associated with Orson Welles, leading to appearances in Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Journey into Fear, for which Cotten was also credited with the screenplay, and The Third Man. He was a star in his own right with films such as Shadow of a Doubt, Love Letters and Portrait of Jennie. Cotten was born in Petersburg, Virginia, the son of Sallie Bartlett and Joseph Cheshire Cotten, Sr., who was an assistant postmaster. Cotten worked as an advertising agent after attending the Washington, D.C., Hickman School of Speech and Expression, where he studied acting. His work as a theatre critic inspired him to become more involved in theatre productions, first in Virginia, and later in New York. Cotten made his Broadway debut in 1930, and soon befriended Orson Welles. In 1937, he joined Welles’ Mercury Theatre Company, starring in productions of Julius Caesar and Shoemaker’s Holiday.
Cotten made his film debut in the Welles-directed short Too Much Johnson, a comedy based on William Gillette’s 1890 play. The short was occasionally screened before or after Mercury productions, but never received an official release. Before acting in this film, Cotten got into good physical shape by working out at the Waple Studio of Physical Culture in Alexandria, Virginia. Cotten returned to Broadway in 1939, starring as C.K. Dexter Haven in the original production of Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story as well as the 1953 production of Sabrina Fair.
After the success of Welles’s War of the Worlds 1938 Hallowe’en radio broadcast, Welles gained a unique contract with RKO Pictures. The two-picture deal promised full creative control for the young director below an agreed budget limit, and Welles intention was to feature the Mercury players in his productions. Shooting had still not begun on a Welles film after a year, but after a meeting with writer Herman J. Mankiewicz Welles had a suitable project.