Interview with Barry Corbin





[originally appeared on]

This interview is with Barry Corbin, one of Hollywood’s most distinctive character actors. His credits include “Urban Cowboy”, “War Games”, “Lonesome Dove”, “Stir Crazy” and Maurice Minnifield in “Northern Exposure” where he won an Emmy Nomination for Best Supporting Actor. 

Tricia Connell, Head Moderator for conducted this fantastic interview direct from Mr. Corbin’s front porch with his horses, dogs, kids and grandkids all around. 

Armando Tamez, Barry’s #1 fan and moderator of sent additional info. Armando has an excellent site which much more info about Mr. Corbin.

TC    Mr. Corbin, can you tell me a bit about where you're from? 
BC    Well, my family originated in Virginia. We were always a bunch of farmers. They moved to Texas after the Civil War. I was born in Lamesa, Texas that isn't to far from Lubbock. I've got a brother and a sister. 
My dad was a lawyer and Dawson County Judge and also a Texas State Senator until Preston Smith beat him in an election. My mom was an elementary school teacher. 

TC    How did you get your start in the entertainment? 
BC    Well, you know that's a good story. The first thing I ever did was playing a piano in church when I was a kid. Then we started doing plays with the kids in our neighborhood. That was back in the day of character actors like Gabby Hayes and Walter Brennan. I wanted to be just like them. 

TC    How about your days in high school? 
BC    Well, the only things I paid attention to were literature and history. Other than that, I hated school. We used to go over to Texas Tech and watch the theatre rehearsals all the time. It was a lot more fun than school. 
After high school, I went to Texas Tech. Of course theatre was what I enjoyed and pretty much all I did. When I was 19 I got the job playing Falstaff and did a pretty good job! 

There was a story that went around campus that I was living in a dumpster, and that story was not strictly true. I did sleep in a dumpster, but I didn't live in it. See, there used to be greenhouses by the old library - not the library that is there now - and every day they'd dump their flowers in there. And it smelled real nice. It wasn't like I was nestling down in something that smelled like sour milk. It was flowers. So I'd crawl in there and take a nap between classes. And no one would have known except one day the truck came and picked up the dumpster and emptied it while I was in there. So I got dumped into the garbage truck. 

TC    What happened after you left Texas Tech? 
BC    My brother and I went into the Marine Corp together. Wasn't exactly the smartest thing I've done, but we got through it. I spent most of my time sunny California at Camp Pendleton. After I was discharged, I came back to Texas and worked in theatres around the area.

Well, I decided I that had to leave Texas to pursue my acting career. Anyway, I headed up north to New York via Chicago, North Carolina, Madison, Wisconsin and other places. 

I finally got to NY and found out that an off-Broadway play didn't pay squat. I was driving an old Ford Wagon and sleeping in it half the time. Anyway, I did get to do a lot of work - strangely enough a lot of it was Shakespeare. I moved down to Alabama for a while around '72, then moved back up to the Big Apple. 

During the summer of '79, I got a shot at auditioning for the role of Uncle Bob in "Urban Cowboy" It went pretty well and I got the role. That was the one that pretty much set my film-acting career in motion. There were a couple of pretty good roles that came up right after that in "Any Which Way You Can" and "Stir Crazy." 

TC    Wasn't that about the time you started on "Dallas" too? 
BC    Yes. It was kind of strange. They were looking for a very specific look. Someone that could get in JR's face and make it real. So I got the part. And things started taking off after that. We did some movies with Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood and all of the big names in Hollywood back then. 

After that we did "War Games" It was a pretty big hit for all of us. My part was General Beringer - apparently the Director, John Badham, thought I reminded him of his dad who was an Air Force General. 

I guess that movie had one of more memorable lines. Matthew Broderick was working on some computers trying to save the world and I ad-libbed the line "God damn it! I'd piss on a sparkplug if I thought it'd do any good! Let the boy in there, Major." We had'em rolling in the aisles. 

Since then we've done a bunch of TV movies, features and TV shows, from M*A*S*H to Hill Street Blues to Matlock. And then in 1989 we did "Lonesome Dove". I probably hear about that show from more people than any other one I was on. And we had a lot of fun making it. 

And since then we've done a whole lot of character roles - and then came "Northern Exposure". I didn't really want to do a series. Most of them are pretty much just rehashing the pilot. But the writing was so superior to other pilots; we decided to take the 7-year contract for this show. It worked out pretty well. 

TC    Well, I'd say so, you got an Emmy nomination as "Best Supporting Actor"! 
BC    I've got a funny story about that too. Universal was being cheap then and didn't pick up any expenses for the Nominees, so my daughter and I decided to come up to the building where the were having the awards…riding horses!" We didn't win, but we had one heck of a night! 

Anyway, that series cancelled in the mid 90's and I've been doing a lot of character work ever since. Did a short stint on a show called "The Big Easy" that wasn't too far from home, just over a piece in New Orleans. 

I've also been doing a lot of work for different organizations that I'm involved with, working with my horses and my grandkids. Tricia, I've got to tell you, I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. Life has been good to my family and me. 

TC    I can see why! Barry, do you have any words of wisdom for those wanting to go into your line of work? 
BC    Henry Fonda one time said that every time he had a job, he thought it was gonna' be the last one. And, if you got any sense, you gotta' think that because, you know when somebody's gonna do a dip, some of 'em go pretty far down. So, it's not like having any other kind of a job where you have a natural progression. You just don't have it in this business. A lot of people are very successful - very young children, very young adults, but when the children's voice changes, they're out of work. They've got to build a whole other reputation. Most people don't do it, most people can't do it, unless you're a Shirley Temple, you know. She's a very successful person, but not in show business. 

TC    Barry, you seem to have a really nice family. How many kids do you have? 
BC    Yea, I've got 4 kids from 36 to 18, and a ton of grandkids from 3 - 19. 

TC    Well, it certainly doesn't sound like you missed a beat! 
Barry, you know, while I was reading your biography, there was a note about the NAAF Conference. Can you tell me a bit about that? 

BC    It's the National Alopecia Areata Foundation. 
In a nutshell, it's an autoimmune disorder that causes people to lose their hair. Some people lose all their hair; some people lose part of their hair. I lost part of mine, not all of it. Some of those people didn't have any eyelashes, eyebrows, anything. 
Bald-headed people don't understand what it is and they see somebody without any hair, and it makes you look different. For kids, that becomes a very difficult thing. For some adults it becomes very difficult. It just never did bother me that much. About five years ago, I noticed my hair was going and it wasn’t a big deal, but some have a real hard time accepting it and what's worse, their friends and co-workers have a hard time accepting it. For example, when I started losing my hair, a rumor went around that I was taking chemotherapy and I was sick. And that's not a good thing to have in our business. 

The biggest complaint is and the perception of the people that are doing the hiring. Somebody asked me if I had lost any jobs as a result of the hair loss, and I said "Yeah, probably, but I probably wouldn't want to do them anyway." 
But, the thing of it is, a lot of people, when they get something to make them look odd to other people, they retreat rather than come out and say what it is, and so that makes it worse on them physiologically. I said "Now, anybody asks you about it, anybody looks at you funny, tell them what you have, not only tell 'em what you have, tell 'em it's not catching You're not gonna' catch it from me. You might catch it from your own body, 'cause that's what causes it, but you're not gonna catch it from me." 

TC    Barry, I’ve got a question. If you could sit down and you could talk to anyone, who would it be? 
BC    Oh, gosh, that would depend on the mood I'm in. 

TC    Let's just say if you're in a happy mood, who would you talk to? 
BC    I'd want to talk to Will Rodgers, Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain and I'd definitely like to talk to Jesus to see if he was as nice a fella' as they say he was. Yeah, I'd kinda' like to talk to him. 

TC    Barry, have you encouraged your grandson Jordan to pursue acting? 
BC    He never did ask my opinion on it, he just told me he was gonna' do it. You know, anybody that's gonna' do that, if they've got to have validation from somebody else, they better not do it. 
I had a college professor who kept trying to get me to get a teaching certificate so that I could teach or do something so that I'd have something else that I could do. And he kept discouraging me to try and do this professionally. Well, about 20 years later I saw him and I said "why did you always discourage me?" He said "because if I could discourage you, you'd be discouraged." 

And the reason for that is, if you think about it, the best level of a normal life, a doctor, lawyer, salesman, anything. You will go out and get a job, you might be turned down three or four times, but you'll get a job. And for the most part, you're gonna stay with that job for your whole career, maybe you'll change once or twice. Most people might be rejected four, five, six, eight, ten times in a lifetime and that can be tough to handle. For an actor, you're rejected eight or ten times a day.

All you've got to sell is yourself. You're not selling products, they're not turning down a car, they're turning you down. Most people can't handle that. Most people are essentially not set up that way. It’s sort of like the priesthood, you don't choose it, it chooses you. No matter how good you are, you got to have enough humility to observe other people, we're all observers. You got to have the egotism to say what you've got to say. Nobody else can say it as well as you can. You've got to be a peculiar type of person to do this. If you're not that kind of a person, then you better do Community Theater and just enjoy it!

In a way, you have to re-invent yourself. None of us wants our work to be boring. Every human being in the world has a public persona and private persona, and, sometimes we don't know the difference, but we've all got it. 
Usually, when somebody who's in the public eye a lot, goes out say, to the grocery store, you've got to consider that you're probably gonna talk to 30-40 people. If you don't feel like talking to 'em, you better send somebody else. Because if you get nasty with one of 'em, he's gonna say "see that guy on television, he's mean." Now, their friends are gonna say it to ten other people…."that guy was mean to my friend." Pretty soon the word gets around that you're a jerk. So you've got to have a public persona which is what you present to the people who watch you, which is not too different from what you play on television, film, stage, wherever you work. 

TC    Well, I don't see that you are any different by meeting you in person then seeing you on stage or the screen. 
BC    Well, you have to do that especially, in all medias. If you stray to far from what the public sees, then it confuses them, you know? We're all typecast, but we're better off if we typecast ourselves before we get started. That way you get yourself a broad spectrum rather than a bare spectrum. You've always got to be aware of that. Every time, early in my film career, I had to get to the point where I’d track down anybody that was writing in a sheriff, because that's all I was doing. I've known some actors that play nothing but lawyers, and doctors and stuff. 
And if they're happy doing that, that's fine, but I'm not happy with no diversity. 

TC    What are you happy doing? 
BC    Just about anything. However when I look at the script, and if it's a project that I can't bring something fresh to, or that's not been accomplished before, then I'm not interested in doing it. 

TC    And you are definitely an original. Have you found it difficult to be the original person that you are with the industry? Has it hindered you, helped you, I think you know what I mean. 
BC    Oh, it's done hindered. It's been a hindrance something awful. 

Ben Johnson one time told me that "I'm not the best actor in the world, but I am the best Ben Johnson.” And so, I kind of go along with him. I may not be the best actor, but I'm the best me that I can be, right now.

There's been some difficulties, you know. But anybody who's trying to create something, you know, you've got to be true to your own vision, but you also got to bear in mind that you're working for somebody else so you can't just out and out declare war on 'em - although I've done that a few times. You’ve got to do it in a certain way that they can save face 
But, what happens is that if you don't give them an out, you gonna' close the door forever. And I've done that once or twice. 

TC    Have you gone back and have you apologized to certain people for some of the things that you've done along that way? 
BC    I've done that maybe twice. It's not painful to do if you feel like it's the right thing to do. 
If you go back and apologize for something in order to get some kind of gain, monetary gain, then it's wrong. But if you go back and apologize to somebody because you were wrong, that's not a difficult thing to do. I mean we're all wrong sometimes. 

TC    You’re a very nice man Mr. Corbin. Driving out here I was wondering what you were going to be like. 
BC    Well Tricia, there's nothing more disparaging than to see an old, beat-down actor. When I lived in New York, there was this man, this gay man, who would come into interviews, auditions, you know, hang around the equity lounge. And he always wore very nice suits, but they were ragged, but obviously nice suits. He wore a little fancy mustache with colored mascara and hair dyed just black and fluffy. He was 70 something years old. And he was listed in the players guide as leading man. But he never got a job - he had some success in Summer Stock, but he never had any real success in New York.

Anyway, he had gone through his whole life as an actor, probably not making as much money as he'd make building hamburgers over at the Burger King, if you put it all together. Yet, he still considered himself a leading man. You know, he'd come in and his zipper and his fly was broken and he'd have 'em mended with safety pins. But, he still believed it. The thing that's very disparaging is somebody who no longer believes it, but still is kinda' giving it a half-horse try, you know? And there are a lot of people like that, people who get into their 30's, 40's and realize that this is not gonna' happen. But they stay with it and stay with it. Finally, when they're in their 60's, they don't have enough pension, they don't have anything so they become very bitter people.

Funny thing though, that man wasn't bitter, he still had his eye on that gold. Yeah, he may have been crazy but he wasn't bitter. A great many people in this business, they take, and take, and take until finally they become bitter. And that's very discouraging. That's why I don't encourage the kids to get into show business because no matter how successful or unsuccessful you are, it's a very, very difficult business for most people. As for me, it's the only thing that I can do and it's all I want to do so I'm perfectly happy with the whole thing. But the odds that you're gonna be very happy in this line of work are pretty slim. 

TC    Do you sometimes get tired of people asking you all the stuff I’ve been asking you? Do you just want them to say, "hey, let's go out and play a game of pool, c'mon let's go down here and rope these horses, this is my little puppy dog, forget the interview, let's just have a good time? 
BC    Well, no, I don't. If I'm overwhelmed, I wouldn't have agreed to this interview. I don't have to this. You know what, if I did everything that people wanted me to do, spoke at everything they wanted me to speak at, did all the other stuff they wanted me to do, I wouldn't have time to do anything else. So I make up a reason I can't do it, sometimes a legitimate reason. 

This, last weekend, some people wanted me to come to a reunion of the theater department of Texas Tech. Well, I would have liked to have gone, but I'd already agreed to speak at this thing in California. And also, my youngest son was graduating from high school on, so I wanted to be there, so I couldn't do it. They thought that I'll drop everything to do it, but I couldn't, no matter how much I'd like to. And, I usually have conflicts. It's not a common thing for somebody to say "can you come to this function?" If I feel like the function is worth doing and something that's important, then I'll do it. If it's not, then I say "well, I've got something else." 

TC    I guess you know I’ve been emailing back and forth with your grandson Jordan and your daughter Shannon. 
BC    Yep, they’ve told me. My granddaughter is 9 – she’s more of a singer, she’s done musicals, sang the National Anthem at The Ballpark, Cowtown Coliseum and other places. My grandson Jordan is more of a actor. He loves the stuff with a lot of dialogue, like the Littlest Wiseman. He's doing a play over at Creative Arts Theater right now and also something called “Don Coyote” 

TC    Barry, why did you agree to this interview? 
BC    This interview? 

TC    Uh-huh. 
BC    Well, I wasn't doing much of anything else today... (laughs)

TC    Mr. Corbin, Barry I mean, thanks for everything. We really appreciate your time and patience. 

Just a reminder - Armando Tamez, Barry’s #1 fan and moderator of sent additional info. Armando has an excellent site which much more info about Mr. Corbin (Click on the main page to hear Barry's most famous line!).
See the credits for Barry Corbin as noted in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), the premiere entertainment credits site.

Copyright © 2002, all rights reserved.


© Copyright, 2004 • Northern Exposure is Copyright Universal City Studios. All Rights Reserved. • Created 10/04