Audrey (some sources indicate "Audra") Totter was born in 1917 and grew up in Joliet in Will County in northeastern Illinois. Her parents were John Totter (born in Slovenia with birth name Janez) and Ida Mae Totter. Her father was of Austro-Slovenian descent and her mother was Swedish American. She had two brothers, Folger and George, and a sister, Collette.
Totter graduated from Joliet High School, where she "acted in a number of school dramas." According to Totter, she was a Methodist who also began her career performing in several productions for her local church as well as being involved with the YMCA players.
Totter began her acting career in radio in the latter 1930s in Chicago, only forty miles northeast of Joliet. She played in soap operas, including Painted Dreams, Road of Life, Ma Perkins, and Bright Horizon.
Following success in Chicago and New York City, Totter was signed to a seven-year film contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. She made her film debut in Main Street After Dark (1945) and established herself as a popular female lead in the 1940s.
Although she performed in various film genres, she became most widely known to movie audiences for her work in film noirs. Looking back, Totter stated in August 1999, "The bad girls were so much fun to play. I wouldn't have wanted to play Coleen's good-girl parts."
Among her successes were:The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) with John Garfield and Lana TurnerLady in the Lake (1947) with Robert Montgomery and Jayne MeadowsThe Unsuspected (1947 for Warner Bros.) with Claude RainsHigh Wall (1947) with Robert TaylorThe Saxon Charm (1948) with Montgomery and Susan HaywardAlias Nick Beal (1949) with Ray MillandThe Set-Up (1949) with Robert RyanAny Number Can Play (1949) with Clark Gable and Alexis SmithTension (1950) with Richard Basehart
By the early 1950s, the tough-talking "dames" she was best known for portraying were no longer fashionable, and as MGM began streamlining its roster of contract players and worked towards creating more family-themed films, Totter was released from her contract. She reportedly was dissatisfied with her MGM career and agreed to appear in Any Number Can Play only after Clark Gable intervened. After leaving MGM, she worked for Columbia Pictures and 20th Century Fox, but the quality of her films dropped, and by the late 1950s, her film career was in decline, though she continued to work steadily for television.
In 1954, she appeared in the pilot episode of the later 1957-1958 detective series, Meet McGraw with Frank Lovejoy and in 1955, she appeared in an episode of Science Fiction Theatre entitled Spider, Inc. She appeared with Joseph Cotten and William Hopper in the 1957 episode "The Case of the Jealous Bomber" of NBC's anthology series, The Joseph Cotten Show. In 1957, she was cast as a woman doctor, Louise Kendall, in the episode "Strange Quarantine" of the NBC Western series, The Californians.
In 1958, Totter was cast as Martha Fullerton, the widow of a man killed by the gunfighter Matt Reardon (John Russell) in the episode "The Empty Gun" of the ABC/Warner Brothers western series, Cheyenne, with Clint Walker in the title role. In the story line, Reardon is befriended by Cheyenne Bodie as Reardon tries to make amends to Martha, the woman he once loved. Standing between them is her vengeful son, Mike (Sean Garrison), who calls Reardon out for a final gunfight with a tragic ending. Tod Griffin plays Sheriff Frank Day.
Later in 1958, Totter played boarding house owner Beth Purcell in another NBC western series, Cimarron City. The episodes were supposed to have rotated among star George Montgomery as the mayor, John Smith as blacksmith/deputy sheriff Lane Temple, and Totter, but when the writers failed to feature her character, she left the series. From 1962–1963, she starred as homemaker Alice MacRoberts in the ABC situation comedy Our Man Higgins, with Stanley Holloway, Frank Maxwell, and Ricky Kelman. In 1964, she made a guest appearance on CBS's Perry Mason as defendant Reba Burgess in the title role of "The Case of the Reckless Rockhound".
Totter played a continuing role from 1972-76, that of Nurse Wilcox, the efficient head nurse, in the CBS television series Medical Center, with James Daly and Chad Everett. Her last acting role was as a nun, Sister Paul, in a 1987 episode ("Old Habits Die Hard") of CBS's Murder, She Wrote, with Angela Lansbury.
Totter was married to Dr. Leo Fred, assistant dean of the UCLA School of Medicine from 1953 until his death in 1995; they had one child. Their granddaughter, Eden Totter, is a voice artist.
Totter died of a stroke on December 12, 2013, eight days before her 96th birthday. She was cremated and her ashes scattered at sea.