Researching this week’s cover story on actor Barry Corbin (photo above) was what I’d call enjoyable work.
The first time we talked, we met at 2 p.m. at his east Fort Worth home and we didn’t stop talking for 10 hours. He’s not a dish-it-all-to-the-press kind of a guy, and so getting him to open up about Hollyweird wasn’t easy. But he’s friendly, funny in an understated way, patient with questions, and full of interesting anecdotes.
I asked him to name the sexiest actress he’d ever worked with. He wasn’t comfortable comparing actresses, but he mentioned in passing that his character in The Man Who Loved Women (1983) was married to Kim Basinger.
Here’s Basinger circa 1983.
Unfortunately for Corbin, he’s what you call a character actor. He gets the horse, not the girl. The Basinger character cheats on him with Burt Reynolds in the movie. Corbin didn’t even get a peck on the cheek.
I asked him about the public’s assumption that actors, musicians, and other celebrities are rich because they’re on TV, movies, concerts, etc. Jobs that provide large sums of money in spurts, followed by dry spells, can be problematic. The list of celebs that have filed bankruptcy includes many names, including Reynolds, Basinger, Willie Nelson, MC Hammer, Mark Twain, Toni Braxton, P.T. Barnum, Donald Trump, Mike Tyson, Henry Ford, Zsa Zsa Gabor, LaToya Jackson, Johnny Unitas, and on and on.
“I talked to a guy who has car lots and he said, ‘I’d trade bank accounts with you right now,’ ” Corbin said. (Corbin’s response, uttered with a sly grin: “You sure about that?”)
Corbin has a lifelong affinity for Shakespeare (photo below features Corbin in his younger, Shakespearean days) but said many people don’t enjoy the English bard because schools introduce his works to kids via books rather than productions. “Shakespeare is not meant to be read, it’s meant to be seen and performed,” he said. “If you see a good production of, say, Macbeth, it’s exciting. But a lot of times people are put off and they don’t even go see the plays because they remember being bored by them in high school.”
Corbin and I met several times for talks and photographs, and during those visits he kept his emotions in check. But his feelings were obvious when discussing his old friend Ben Johnson, the famous cowboy actor who died in 1996.
When they first met, Johnson thought Corbin was an actor who pretended to be a cowboy. “Then he realized I could make a hand, and we became close friends the last years of his life,” Corbin said. “One of the things he used to say was, ‘I may not be the best actor in the world, but I am the best Ben Johnson.’ “
Corbin has an autographed, framed picture of Johnson hanging in his living room. Johnson wrote, “To the best actor in Hollywood outside of me. Keep up the good work.”
“I still miss him,” Corbin said. “He was just about the age of my father. Ben was a good man. He was roping two days before he died. He died in his mother’s house. She was cooking him breakfast and he was in the bathroom shaving and he collapsed.”
Corbin’s eyes watered up for the only time during our many hours of conversation. He let out a sigh and said, “Oh well.” He didn’t wipe his eyes, and a tear didn’t fall, but he looked away for a moment to regain his composure. That’s the cowboy way of handling it.
His big break in Urban Cowboy (1980) had an unwelcome byproduct – those horrible feather bands for cowboy hats (here’s singer Johnny Lee wearing one of those godawful atrocities).
“I’m glad those are out,” Corbin said, admitting that he once owned a similar hat band. “I was embarrassed to wear it.”
Stir Crazy with Richard Pryor was made in a maximum security prison, with Corbin playing a warden. He recalled seeing an old convict lifting weights every day in the yard, talking to no one, serious as a heart attack.
“He was in his 70s,” Corbin recalled. “He had huge arms, standing out there lifting weights all day. Nobody bothered him. He’d just stand there and stare straight ahead. I finally walked over to him and said, ‘Pardon me sir, how long have you been here?’ He said, ‘They have to release me in a year, two months, three weeks.’ I said, ‘Well, what are you going to do?’ He said, ‘I don’t know but I’ll be the strongest goddamned 75 year old you ever saw.’ He just kept lifting weights and never looked at me. He’d been in prison for 50 years.”
Why had Corbin approached him?
“I was curious,” he said. “Curiosity gets me in more trouble. I wanted to know what his story was. Nobody else knew. Nobody would talk to him. It’s like they were afraid of him. I probably should have been too, but I didn’t have sense enough.”
Fans often approach Corbin (above) in the same way, but he doesn’t mind. “People want to get an autograph or picture but I’ve never found it intrusive. It’s part of the job. Ben Johnson said, ‘I’m not working for the studios; I’m working for the people who buy the tickets. If they stop buying tickets, the studios aren’t going to hire me anymore.’ I never saw him refuse an autograph or refuse to take a picture.”
During our photo shoot, we walked down to Corbin’s barn to pose beside his horses. Despite being 69 and creaky from a myriad of broken bones he’s suffered over a lifetime of dealing with livestock and horses, Corbin offered to jump up on the back of his horse even though it wasn’t saddled. Now that’s a cowboy.
His eyes lit up when we talked about his time spent on the set of Who’s Harry Crumb? (1989) with John Candy. It was a fluke that Corbin was even cast in that movie. “It was shot up in Vancouver, Canada,” he said. “I went up and met the producer and he said, ‘Oh, you were so good in Raising Arizona.’ I said, ‘Uh, thank you.’ I didn’t say anything else.”
He waited until he’d already shot several scenes before finally telling the producer that he wasn’t in Raising Arizona. “That was the Trey Wilson part,” Corbin told him. “I would have told you to go hire him but he’s dead now.”
Corbin, who enjoys a cold beer as much as the next guy, had a blast working with Candy, who would die five years later after much excessive living.
“John Candy was one of the nicest fellas I’ve ever met,” he said. “And big. Not just round, but big. Tall. The insurance company insisted he have a personal trainer so he could keep himself in shape during the shoot. They hired this woman to be his trainer. He’d hide from her. He’d come down in the morning and she’d have a protein drink for him for breakfast, waiting in the lobby. He’d come down smoking a cigarette, take that thing and polish it down and hand it back to her, and then go to the set and order three breakfast burritos. He was just a sweetheart.”
Corbin’s most celebrated movie role might be Lonesome Dove, written by Archer City’s Larry McMurtry.
“I read the book long before they started to do the miniseries,” said Corbin (pictured above with actor Tommy Lee Jones, who was also in the movie). “I went to my agent and said, ‘I have to be in this miniseries. I don’t care what part it is; I’ve got to be in it.’ They weren’t casting it until almost a year later. My agents had forgotten I’d said that and they didn’t even submit me for it. The producers and director contacted them because they wanted to see me, which worked out well. I probably had the best job in that show. I came in at the beginning of the shoot, worked for three weeks, and then went away for something like three months and did two other movies, and then came back and finished it toward the end of the shoot. At the beginning of the shoot, everybody was just as happy as they could be, everybody was walking around wearing their cowboys clothes and cheerful. Then when I came back everybody was mad as hell. Everybody was grouchy and complaining and nobody liked each other, they were all mad. I thought, ‘What in the world is wrong with these people?’ Then I thought about it, ‘Oh yeah, they had that cattle drive.’ They were worn out. Herding cattle is hard work, even if you’re not really doing, even when you just look like your doing it.”
His latest movie is Provinces of Night with Kris Kristofferson (pictured above with Corbin), Val Kilmer, Dwight Yokum, and Hillary Duff. “It’s a family drama,” Corbin said. “Kris is the patriarch of the family. Val, Dwight, and a guy named Earl Brown are his three sons. It’s a nice story.”