by Michael Hall
photo by LeAnn Muller
Barry Corbin has been acting for more than six decades, a career that has seen him take more than two hundred roles onstage, on TV, and in the movies. They’ve mostly been supporting roles, often authority figures-a natural fit, given Barry’s large frame and confident presence. He’s played fifteen sheriffs, several generals, a few wise uncles, a swaggering astronaut, and a hard-core basketball coach. He’s also played psychotic patriarchs, wealthy Texans, Santa Claus, and Lyndon Johnson. Even when his characters are overbearing or murderous, Barry has always found a way to make them human and likable-so much so that he often steals the show, as he did portraying General Jack Beringer in WarGames and astronaut Maurice Minnifield in Northern Exposure. Known as a character actor, he always seems like he’s genuinely enduring whatever his character is enduring-while also somehow remaining Barry Corbin.
Leonard Barrie Corbin was born October 16, 1940, in the ranching and cotton town of Lamesa, sixty miles south of Lubbock. His paternal grandfather had moved to Lamesa from Lampasas in the twenties because he wanted to raise cotton and the land there looked good. “It was beautiful green country,” Barry says, “like the Garden of Eden.”
Barry’s parents, Kilmer and Alma Corbin, were schoolteachers who married young. Kilmer had been stricken by polio as a child, which limited the use of his right hand and left him unable to do farmwork. He developed into a bookish kid. Alma (who had been born in a covered wagon on the trip to Lamesa) named their first son after J. M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan. When Barrie reached school age, he became “Barry” to differentiate himself from a female classmate who had the same name.
Though his parents weren’t horse people, Barry spent summers at his grandfather’s, who put him in the saddle every day. He loved the feeling. “A horse wants to do whatever you want him to do,” Barry says. “If you want to compare it to being one entity, you’re the brain, and the horse is the body. So you’ve got to be in sync with the horse. Got to make him think whatever you’re gonna do is coordinated. And make him think it’s his idea. Then you get along.”
The Corbin family
Brother Blaine and sister Jane followed Barry-lived just north of Lamesa on Highway 87, in a house across the road from a cotton gin and down the street from the school where Kilmer and Alma taught.
Barry learned to love Westerns by spending Saturday afternoons in Lamesa’s Majestic Theater. He adored the heroes-Gary Cooper, John Wayne-but was intrigued by horsemen like Ben Johnson and bit players like George “Gabby” Hayes and the comic actor Al St. John, who performed in westerns under the name Fuzzy Q. Jones. “I could do that,” Barry thought. When he and his friends got home, they would divvy up parts from the movie and act it out all over again. He decided to be an actor when he grew up, but not a leading man. He wanted to be a character.
Barry’s father Kilmer was an FDR Democrat, an ambitious young man who at 22 decided to run for county judge and won. When he set his sights on the state Senate in 1948, his firstborn helped nail up posters and hand out cards on the courthouse square. Kilmer won, becoming the youngest senator in the Legislature.
The family shuttled back and forth between the South Plains and Austin, where Barry went to second grade at Travis Heights Elementary. After Kilmer served two terms, the family settled in Lubbock, where Kilmer, who lacked a law degree but had passed the State Bar exam, opened a legal practice. He would take Barry with him on Saturdays when he visited clients to collect payment. Sometimes folks would try to negotiate, pulling out a bottle of whiskey or offering up a chicken or goat.
Corbin remembers the banter from those long-gone interactions. He says the way folks talk in the Southern Plains is something they carry proudly throughout their lives. But it’s not just how they talk; it’s what they say. “A big part of our identity is telling stories,” he says. The expanse of the land required people there to learn to fend for themselves-and to entertain themselves. “Most of us became storytellers out of boredom.”
Like everyone else in the area, Barry picked up the accent. He speaks in a comfortable lilt, an accent that rolls out of his mouth, more drawl than twang. It’s flat but musical, slightly nasal with a bit of a rasp. When he speaks deliberately, which he often does, his voice is deep and resonant. He sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, like he can be trusted, like he means what he says.
From an early age, Barry found himself observing the people around him: listening to them talk, discerning their differences, taking mental notes. In high school, when he wasn’t buying horses to retrain and sell at a profit, he was people-watching at the Purple Onion, a gathering place for local beatniks near Texas Tech University. “You’d go in-there’d be a fellow, older, about thirty, he’d grown a beard and wore a beret, walked around with a walking stick,” Barry says. “There’d be people doing bad Allen Ginsberg-like poetry, snapping their fingers.”
By the time he got to Tech, in 1959, he looked like a young, roguish English actor: six feet tall, 160 pounds, black hair, and dark brown eyes. He had acted throughout high school and was determined to continue in college. His freshman year, he wore a fat suit to play Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor. He took Shakespeare seriously and devoured the playwright’s complete works.Barry wasn’t a great student, but he was already developing into a fine actor, playing parts in modern dramas like A View From the Bridge.
He was a gregarious free spirit, and if he didn’t like the plays the theater department had scheduled for an upcoming semester, he would drop out and work on an oil rig, soaking up another world’s characters and their stories. He didn’t graduate, and in 1961 he joined the Marines, spending two years at Camp Pendleton, in Southern California.
When he returned to Lubbock, he jumped back into acting. Jamie Howell, an actor who shared the stage with Barry at Tech, said Barry was already on a different level from other community theater performers. “It was like watching a major leaguer play with some double-A players,” Howell says. “He had this transportive ability. He could take an audience to a place where he was taking himself. He’d touch your soul in some way, and I’m talking about touching the soul of West Texans, who are not easy to touch.”
In 1965 Barry married his girlfriend, Marie Elyse Soape, who was also an actor. Lubbock didn’t offer many opportunities for the couple to pursue their stage ambitions, so they headed east. They spent a year in Chicago, where Barry worked at a bookstore and did a community theater production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. They spent time in Raleigh, where Barry taught acting at North Carolina State University, and he performed in Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen. He also played Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet at the famed Barter Theatre, in Abingdon, Virginia.
The older Barry got, the more fascinated he grew with his craft: creating flesh-and-blood characters from written dialogue. With each new town and each new production, he learned new ways of deploying his voice, face, and body to transport himself and the people who watched him. Barry moved to New York in 1967, with Soape eventually joining him, and the couple settled in Greenwich Village. He decorated their kitchen with photos of horses, cowboys, and buffalo. He hung a Texas flag on the wall. Although he acted on Broadway, Barry also used the city as a base to venture elsewhere, to the American Shakespeare Festival, in Stratford, Connecticut, and to several dinner theaters in the Northeast.
In 1970, Barry and Soape had a son, Bernard, though not long after, the couple divorced. Barry held on to the apartment but hit the road for more stage work: Alabama, Mississippi, Massachusetts. Some nights he slept in his car, but he enjoyed the itinerant life-doing roles he knew, subbing for other actors, stumbling upon new opportunities.
In 1976, while driving back to New York, he stopped in Atlanta to visit a friend and heard about an audition for a local TV shoot. Barry ended up getting the part, playing the world’s greatest hot-air balloon pilot in Movin’ On. And he did some other TV: a guest spot in an episode of Hawaii Five-O, a hit man in The Andros Targets. That year, he married Susan Berger, a fellow actor he had met in Alabama. The two moved into Barry’s apartment, and he went back to touring. Life was good: he got to do what he loved, and he was successful at it. Then, in July of 1977, New York was hit by a blackout. The city was already in financial chaos, plus the Son of Sam was on the loose.
After hunkering down through a hectic night of looting, miserable heat, and food spoiling in the refrigerator, Barry decided he had had enough. He was approaching forty and wanted to see if he could make a childhood dream come true. He and Berger drove to Los Angeles.
While Barry had been learning to act, he was also learning to write, scripting plays and filling them with characters he knew from home. His first finished piece was Suckerrod Smith and the Cisco Kid, in which a young man from Queens heads to Hollywood to become a movie cowboy and stops along the way at a bar in West Texas, where he meets, among others, free-spirited Suckerrod Smith, who was based on Barry’s grandfather.
When Barry arrived in L.A., he penned a longer play called The Whiz Bang Cafe, which involved a collection of personalities at a truck stop in Throckmorton, Texas, about halfway between Lubbock and Fort Worth. Barry was part of a troupe performing the play, and he invited an agent to see it. She liked his writing but loved his acting, and she got him an audition, which led to his first big-screen role: Uncle Bob in Urban Cowboy.
Barry, the 39-year-old film rookie, looked completely at ease with star John Travolta, smiling, smoking a pipe, dispensing country wisdom. One of the emotional peaks of the film comes toward the end, when Bob is killed by lightning, but immediately before that, he gives his nephew Bud (Travolta) some avuncular advice on dealing with his estranged wife.
The director thought the lines as written were too bare, so the day before shooting, he asked Barry to punch them up. Barry thought back to his childhood and the cantaloupes his grandmother had grown next to her garage, and then he let his imagination go. In the scene, Bob told Bud exactly why he had swallowed his pride numerous times: “Without Corene and them kids, hell, I’d be just another old pile of dog shit in the cantaloupe patch, just drawing flies.”
Travolta, who didn’t know the line was coming, let out a delighted snicker-as did audiences nationwide who came in droves to see the movie.
Throughout the early eighties, Barry laid the groundwork for decades of future TV law enforcement roles with his performance as Sheriff Fenton Washburn in Dallas, a crooked but engaging lawman. He also had supporting turns in two box-office hits-as a prison warden in the Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor comedy Stir Crazy and as a wealthy Texas gambler in Clint Eastwood’s Any Which Way You Can. Nothing, however, could have prepared him for the success of WarGames, in 1983. Barry played Jack Beringer, a four-star general who has to prevent a computer-driven World War III started unknowingly by a teenage hacker, played by Matthew Broderick.
Once again, a director asked Barry to get inside his character’s head and add some dialogue. John Badham told the actor that Beringer needed to utter a line showing how desperate the situation was and suggesting that, since none of the adults could head off nuclear annihilation, they turn to the teen. Barry assured Badham he’d figure something out, and he remembered a day back in Lamesa when he had dared his cousin to urinate into the engine of a tractor their grandfather had left running in a field. The next day, at the appointed time, Barry cried, “Goddamn it! I’d piss on a spark plug if I thought it’d do any good! Let the boy in there, Major.”
By then, Barry and Berger had two sons, James and Chris, and Barry was building a reputation for versatility and a sense of humor. He got to use both in one of his favorite roles, that of Roscoe Brown in Lonesome Dove from 1989. Barry also got to ride a horse-which he did again in another favorite role, as the good-hearted stagecoach driver Charlie McCloud in Conagher. For the movie, Corbin had to learn to drive a team of six horses, something he hadn’t done before, but he was such a natural that he learned in two days.
Barry was happy playing minor and ensemble parts-the roles kept him working, and they were often more interesting than playing the lead. “Being a movie star,” he would say, “is the biggest pain in the world.”In 1990, at age fifty, Barry landed the TV role that, for many, defines him: the arrogant ex-astronaut Maurice Minnifield, who runs the town of Cicely, Alaska. Northern Exposure was witty and weird, and Barry helped set the tone, playing a macho man who loved show tunes, a braggart who cried, a hothead with a big smile.
One of Barry’s close friends on set was John Cullum, also a veteran stage actor, who says, “Barry is such a good actor that sometimes he doesn’t realize he’s acting. That’s the most perfect acting you can do. It’s so natural that it’s really him. He was totally authentic, almost a method actor. He deliberately created this character of Maurice.
In 1991, after filming the first season of Northern Exposure, Barry got a phone call from his agent that would change his life: a young woman named Shannon Ross was claiming to be his daughter. Barry called Ross and, within minutes, realized she was indeed his child. Her mother and Barry had had a fling in 1964, but she had never told him about their daughter.
Soon, Barry and Ross (who lived in Arlington, Texas) were talking every day, and he would often fly her and her family out to Seattle, where he was living at the time. Barry kept a couple of horses and was delighted to find that Ross also rode. He would break out his trick rope and perform for the kids. Barry had recently taken to riding cutting horses and entering competitions and celebrity rodeos.
When Barry’s work in Northern Exposure earned him an Emmy nomination in 1993, he and Ross rode horses to the ceremony. That year, Barry’s second marriage ended. Two years later, Northern Exposure shot its final episode, and Barry found himself drifting-visiting his sons in California, sleeping on Ross’s couch. He was ready to move back to Texas, and Ross, also recently divorced, was ready to move in with him. Barry bought a fifteen-acre ranch in east Fort Worth that had once belonged to former Texas Rangers manager Bobby Valentine. He brought his horses from Seattle and bought six head of cattle and a bull.
Now that the series was over, he returned to his first love-westerns–doing The Journeyman with Willie Nelson and Crossfire Trail with Tom Selleck. Of all his roles, Barry’s favorites have been in old-fashioned westerns, the ones with cowboys, horses, and triumphant good guys. “The western is our mythology,” he says. “Usually in a western, the hero is a guy who, well, what John Wayne said: ‘Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.’ And that’s pretty much what a western ought to be.”
Barry loved the horse operas, but his turns in Dallas and Urban Cowboy solidified his standing in modern westerns. Perhaps his most memorable character was Uncle Ellis, in 2007’s No Country for Old Men. Corbin plays a former Texas lawman who has been paralyzed from the waist down by a bullet, and he shares his scene with Tommy Lee Jones, who portrays his nephew, a sheriff. The scene is only five minutes long, yet it somehow encapsulates the relentless evil in the movie-and the world. Barry, then 66, did what he’s done since he was young: he spun a story. Bearded and confined to a wheelchair in a squalid desert shack, Ellis tells his nephew how one of their kin was killed seventy years before by Indians. It’s a remarkable monologue of violence, death, and, finally, burial “in that hard, old caliche,” told in Barry’s slow Southern Plains drawl.
The look on his face, as well as his delivery, makes it seem as if King Lear himself has been dressed in grubby overalls and dropped into the West Texas desert.
Besides westerns, Barry was also doing a lot of voice work on documentaries–on everything from the space program and Old West gunfighters to the history of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. He also did audiobooks of American lore like Old Yeller and the 1930s Max Brand pulp cowboy tales, he played the fire chief on King of the Hill, he became the voice of Fort Worth country station 99.5 the Wolf, and he played characters on numerous video games.
One of his favorite narrations was for Buffalo Altar: A Texas Symphony, a piece of music and writing by J. Todd Frazier and Stephen Harrigan. It’s a love letter to old Texas, an 81-year-old oilman’s reminiscence of wild days gone by, including the time, fifty years earlier, when he and an elderly rancher entered a cave and watched the sun rise over an altar of ancient buffalo jawbones. In each public performance, Corbin, wearing a white Stetson, would stand onstage and read the story, weaving in and out with the music. “Texas is what connects me and that prehistoric fella and that old rancher and that dead buffalo,” he’d say, interlocking his fingers. “It’s not just the place we live in; it’s the place that lives in us, even after we’re dead and lookin’ toward the sun with empty eyes.”
Another piece Barry worked on was Charles Goodnight’s Last Night. Barry had grown up hearing stories about Charles Goodnight, the legendary cowboy and cattle baron who had established the JA Ranch at Palo Duro Canyon, south of Amarillo. Barry latched onto the idea of doing a one-act play. He sought out poet Andy Wilkinson, who had composed an album of songs and verse about Goodnight, and the two collaborated. When Charles Goodnight’s Last Night opened, Barry did his own makeup for the show, and his white hair and goatee so resembled the titular character’s that Wilkinson’s grandmother-who had known the cowman in her childhood-saw Barry onstage and said, “My goodness, that’s Uncle Charley!”
Over the past decade, Barry has played roles in various TV shows like Anger Management, The Ranch, Modern Family, Better Call Saul, and 9-1-1: Lone Star. In 2012 he and Ross moved from the ranch to a compound of several homes in Handley. It’s more urban there, no place for animals, so he had to give away his menagerie.
Corbin married Jo, his third wife, in 2015, and since then they’ve lived across the street from Ross and her second husband.
Barry turned 80 in October 2020, and he is showing no signs of hanging up his spurs. He keeps a bag packed in his closet, as he has for most of his professional life. “Usually my jobs come up at the last minute,” he says. “They call on Tuesday and say I have to be in New Zealand on Thursday.”
In January, he and Jo drove to Arizona to work on a film in which he plays a patriarch who is passionate about 1950’s football–and who hides in the closet to eat cookies.
In Handley, Barry spends a lot of his time in his office. One wall is a bow to his past, adorned with awards, plaques, and honors from various Texas halls of fame and the Screen Actors Guild. There are a dozen bronze statues: cowboys on horseback, cowboys roping calves, cowboys standing alone. The sculptures commemorate a bygone way of life, one Barry saw vestiges of as a child and then wound up playing onscreen.
His favorite award came from the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, in Oklahoma City-basically the Smithsonian for cowboys. Tom Mix, Gary Cooper, and John Wayne are in the HOF and so is Barry, who was inducted in 2018, a year after Alan Ladd and a year before Kevin Costner.
He bides his time watching old movies, taking walks through his neighborhood, doing interviews (Barry delights in stopping a conversation by slipping into some Shakespeare, such as the “All the world’s a stage” speech from As You Like It),and keeping up with the world. “I spend a lot of time out here,” he says, “reading the paper, looking at TV, cutting out some of these articles, trying to educate somebody-which, nobody would ever read ’em.”
Perhaps Barry became a great American character actor because he’s a natural who’s spent a lifetime honing his talent, but to hear him tell it, he’s learned the most from keeping his eyes open. “It informs who I am,” he says. “A lot of people work too hard at acting. It’s all about human behavior. I never tire of people-watching. You learn things every day from living.”