'Northern Exposure' Actor Injects A Little Bit Of Cowboy Into His Roles





Entertainment & the Arts: Monday, October 14, 1991
Kit Boss

Home, home on the set.

A few hours before he's needed in front of the cameras of the CBS series "Northern Exposure," Barry Corbin climbs into his dressing trailer outside the show's Redmond sound stage. The phrase Larger Than Life comes to mind.

Or Larger Than Television, at least.

Corbin's wearing denim jeans and shirt. Boots. Spurs. A cowboy hat, if not the 10-gallon variety then at minimum 2 liters. A silver belt buckle suitable for serving hors d'oeuvres.

It's not part of the costume for his character, former astronaut and fellow Lone Star Stater Maurice Minnifield, who usually appears in a leather bomber jacket and NASA cap. It's gen-you-ine Corbin.

The buckle came from a rodeo in Fort Worth. Corbin's passion is the cutting-horse competition, where a mount and rider are judged on their skill at culling a cow from the middle of a herd. Corbin entered, without his favorite riding boots. Wearing borrowed spurs. Riding someone else's horse.

"Kinda like going over to Wimbledon without your tennis shoes or your racket," explains Corbin in his big-as-Texas twang, maneuvering a toothpick to one corner of his mouth. "Won by half a point."

Vying for the part of Maurice, Corbin won it hands - and face and belt buckle - down. During his audition, Corbin decided to drop to the floor and pumped out a nonstop series of pushups because the script described Maurice as a fitness buff.

"Barry was clearly our first choice," recalls Joshua Brand, co-executive producer of the series about an Alaskan podunk and its charmingly eccentric residents. "When we wrote the part we kind of saw George C. Scott in 'Patton.' Robert Duvall in 'Apocalypse Now.' John Wayne. Heroic men of action. Someone who embodied the best and worst of those American qualities of capitalism and progress and greed and avarice."

In tonight's episode [3.4 Animals R Us] for example, the gears in Maurice's head start turning when he sees the huge eggs being laid by Marilyn's ostriches.

"I'm not talking about slaughter right away now, you understand," he tells Marilyn in his log cabin, decorated in early Teddy Roosevelt, all hunting trophies and Victorian velvet, with a dinner table that seats 16. "This is an industry that's poised for takeoff."

Corbin leapt at the part because he figured the character held the potential for surprise. He also recalls, "As I explored the character I discovered we share almost nothing in common."

Maurice sees the Alaskan wilderness and dreams of trailer parks and 31 Flavors. Corbin envisions national parks so untamed and remote that people wouldn't even bother to visit. Maurice took the ultimate trip, out of this world, Spam-in-a-can. Corbin won't subject himself to a mere balloon ride. Maurice is ruled by the cerebrum; Corbin, by intuition.

"The only thing Maurice is afraid of is himself," Corbin says. "If you took away his shell he'd be a quivering mass of ganglia."

That doesn't leave much overlap. "I appear to talk a whole lot but I don't say anything," offers Corbin. "Maurice is the same way."

When "Northern Exposure" made its debut last year, Corbin's was one of the few faces that rang bells. Among his long list of credits, he played Uncle Bob in the film "Urban Cowboy" and a general in "WarGames," appeared in a string of TV movies and miniseries, including "Lonesome Dove," and starred in a memorable commercial for Birdseye frozen vegetables.

The son of a Texas county judge who went to the Senate at age25, Corbin was named for James M. Barrie, who wrote "Peter Pan."

"I never could get my mother to tell me why," Corbin puzzles.

He liked movies, and at age 8 decided to become an actor. His grandfather, who kept horses and helped Corbin learn to ride when most kids are learning to walk, encouraged him.

"Practically everyone said I'd grow out of it," says Corbin, now 50. "I haven't yet."

Corbin studied acting at Texas Tech, eventually flipping a coin to decide whether to move to New York or Los Angeles. Luck sent him East. He forged a career as a stage actor, playing Shakespeare's Henry V and Macbeth and other standards.

"Somewhere in the back of my mind I figured I couldn't compete in films until I was older. At 25, you don't come out and try to replace Walter Brennan."

He says he has injected a little bit of cowboy into every part he has played, even those where he delivered his lines in Elizabethan English.

In "Northern Exposure," he reins in his cowboy impulse so as not to overlap with the Gary Cooper-esque character of Holling, a reformed big-game hunter who owns the town tavern. Look for an episode later this season, a flashback to the fictional town of Cicely's pioneer days, when Corbin might get a chance to saddle up [3.23 Cicely].

"They may put me on horseback the whole time," he says. "Which would be fine with me."

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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