Living Legends: Urban Cowboy

Barry Corbin, who is best known for his work on the hit TV show Northern Exposure, knows Hollywood. As a real-life cowboy living on a ranch in Arlington, he also knows horses. Both have a tendency to bite.

The day before I met Barry Corbin, a photographer from a national magazine had flown in to snap Corbin’s picture to promote an upcoming TV show. Corbin is a cowboy and an actor who, in the arc of a 40-year stage and film career, has played everything from King Henry in Shakespeare’s Henry V to Roscoe Brown in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Corbin is perhaps best known for his role as Maurice Minnifield on the Emmy Award-winning TV show Northern Exposure, in which he played a retired astronaut and business tycoon in Cicely, Alaska. Corbin lives on a ranchette in Arlington, not far from I-30 and a few houses from novelist Sandra Brown.

 “The photographer wanted me down at the corral,” Corbin said in his West Texas drawl as we made our way east on Division Street toward lunch. On 15 acres, Corbin keeps a cutting horse or two, a couple of longhorns (one of which came from Will Rogers’ herd), a buffalo, and several miniature horses. It would be a mistake to overlook the diminutive equines.

“The old boy was lining me up, trying to get the longhorns in the background,” Corbin continued. “He had his back to the miniature horses and couldn’t see ’em sneaking up behind him.”

Given Corbin’s gift for story telling, I could see the horses close in on the doomed photographer.

“Great. Good. Terrific smile. Lift your hat a little. There. Barry, it almost looks like you’re laughing.”

Then, suddenly, confusion and torn denim. “AUGH! WHAT THE…?”

The photographer wheeled in pain only to discover horses the size of tall dogs. When he turned back to Corbin, the photographer’s pupils were narrowed by pain and betrayal. “I kinda thought they were just going to sniff him.” Corbin says, leaning over to me. The way he was grinning, I’d say he thought nothing of the sort. But I’d say it wasn’t personal either: Cowboy laughs often have a scar attached.

Corbin was still grinning as we turned in at the red anchor of Catfish Sam’s, where they promise love at first bite. The photographer was probably back in New York, lying on his stomach, reliving the hellish flight home. “I bet he had a mark back there, all right,” Corbin said. “Those little guys can bite.”

That first visit, Corbin and I chatted in a booth near the back of the restaurant. A table filled with women took turns glancing over at him. As we were leaving, a man asked him about Lonesome Dove, said he wanted a sequel. In light of the photographer’s experience, I’d characterize my first outing with Corbin as pleasantly uneventful.

When I showed up for our second afternoon together, I thought about wearing a rearview mirror as a joke, but a long time had passed between meetings and I wasn’t sure Corbin would see the humor in an otherwise balky headpiece.

With the help of his daughter Shannon, we’d scheduled a Barry Corbin film festival, which I thought might include Urban Cowboy, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, and perhaps Stir Crazy with Richard Pryor. I especially wanted to watch a Northern Exposure episode with him.

Corbin met me at his front door wearing boots, jeans, and a Western shirt. He welcomed me into his living room where we caught up a bit before ducking into the screening room. Corbin’s house has the look of a high-end Western store complete with a cabinet full of cutting horse trophies. The screening room is used to review movies for the Academy Awards.

“They start sending the movies out around Thanksgiving,” he said, pointing me to one of two swivel chairs. I asked what his favorite movie was last year. “Oh, I really liked The Straight Story with Richard Farnsworth. I was hoping he’d get the award.”

Even with the lights on the room is dark. There’s a projection TV at one end and a couch  at the other. Scattered on the walls are small movie posters, including Son of Frankenstein, The Wizard of Oz, and Cape Fear. There is a framed photo of Roy Rogers.

Two small problems arose. First, Corbin doesn’t usually watch himself. In fact, he said he never watches TV. Second, the barn out back needed cleaning. But I didn’t know that when we sat down. “I’m not sure I can sit through a whole Northern Exposure,” he tells me. “But I’ll try.”

“Why not?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Sometimes I can watch myself in a movie from a long time ago, especially if I’ve forgotten the plot points. I watched one just the other night.”

For a couple of hours we watched clips from various film and TV projects. Corbin has appeared in a dizzying array of both, including Who’s Harry Crumb?, War Games, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Corbin was Sheriff Fenton Washburn in Dallas. He’s recently appeared on The Drew Carey Show, Spin City, King of the Hill, and Walker, Texas Ranger. He also has several movies in production.

Corbin got through the first video all right, answering my questions with polite yes’s, and no’s. If I asked a particularly good question, I got an, “Uh-huh.” Halfway through the episode of Northern Exposure where Maurice throws a party for the whole town, I asked Corbin what he saw when he looked at the screen.

“Oh,” he said. “The background. I look for people that I’ve known. Or I remember something that was going on in my life at the time.” Corbin pointed to a tall Indian in Northern Exposure. “He was a nice guy. We had some good conversations.”

As soon as the show was over, Corbin flipped on the lights and said that he needed to shovel the barn. Two stalls needed cleaning. “You can come, if you like,” he said. “We can keep talking.” Given how the festival was going, it made sense to head outside. With him mucking one stall and me the next, we talked over the walls. We met to offload our shovels at the John Deere mini-dump truck.

At the other end of the barn, a radio blared. Corbin leaves it on for the horses. The radio is tuned to country music station KPLX-FM 99.5 “The Wolf.” Corbin is the official voice of the Wolf, pre-recording every conceivable introduction and segue. In effect, by leaving the radio on, he talks to his horses all day and night, telling them what time it is and which station they’re listening to. I kept waiting to hear Corbin’s voice coming from both ends of the barn at once, but it never did. We got to the bottom of our stalls before a station break.

With a shovel in his hand and a wall between us, Corbin was almost chatty. We talked about Hollywood. About how he almost didn’t get the role of Maurice Minnifield, or better put, how he almost didn’t get the opportunity to audition for the role. Corbin was up for another Western.

“They were down to two actors to play the part,” he said. “We were called in to read for the producer. I was told to be there at 10 a.m.” Corbin was there, as were the other actor and the casting director. The producer was nowhere to be found. Everyone waited. An hour later the phone rang. The producer said, “I’m out looking at horses. Tell ’em to come back tomorrow.”

From my own experiences, Corbin is punctual and professional, if a little lean on information on the whereabouts of his miniature horses. Corbin let the casting director know that he didn’t like being stood up but appeared the next day for another appointment. Again, he waited for an hour in front of the producer’s office. At 11 a.m., he got up, turned to the other actor, and said, “I guess it’s yours.” At that moment, the producer opened his office door. He’d been there the whole time. When he came out, he was gooey with praise for the actors. He asked Corbin to read on the spot. “I was playing a bad guy,” he told me. He held his hands together in front of him, as though he was holding an imaginary script. But he never lifted it up. “I already knew the lines,” he said.

Corbin inched closer to me until the brim of his cap impeded his advance. He stared at me with wild eyes. I reminded myself that I hadn’t been late for anything, that he was acting. The producer wasn’t so sure. Corbin finished the reading, said goodbye to the casting director and the other actor. Then he flashed one last glare towards the producer.

Fully expecting to be turned down, Corbin got a call the next day from his agent. They wanted him for $2,500 for a single show. “I want $25,000,” Corbin demanded.

The agent went back and forth three times, but Corbin wouldn’t budge. “If I was going to work for him,” he said, as if to say “jackass,” “I was going to get my top dollar.” Corbin didn’t get the part. As a result, he was free a few weeks later to audition for the role as Maurice.

“In anything subjective,” he told me, “you’re worth what someone will pay you. In Hollywood, if you start cutting your price, you’ll find yourself working twice as much to make the same money. Word gets around.” I considered, briefly, that I’d just helped clean Corbin’s barn for free.

But he quickly turned his attention to role preparation. He was waiting on FedEx to deliver a script and about to head off to watch his grandkids in a school rehearsal. He’s a doting grandfather.

“The work is all in the preparation,” he said. “I break a script down into digestible bits. You have to really study the character because you film everything out of order. You wouldn’t want to do anything stupid.”

You don’t survive in show business for as long as Barry Corbin has by making stupid moves. Like turning your back on a tiny horse.


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