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Corbin remains a Texas original, heads for Film Hall of Fame

Jane Sumner
Barry Corbin, above in 'No Country for Old Men,' is best known for playing cowboys and Western lawmen, and he performed Shakespeare in the '60s.

Fans of the miniseries "Lonesome Dove" and that's nearly every sentient adult in Texas know the beloved character actor who plays Sheriff July Johnson's endearing, simple deputy, Roscoe Brown.

Austin screenwriter Bill Wittliff, who adapted Larry McMurtry's novel "Lonesome Dove" for TV, says Barry Corbin nailed the role at his audition. "There was simply no other choice. We never read anybody else. Barry came in, and there was Roscoe."

After more than 100 TV and movie credits, the classically trained actor born 71 years ago in Lamesa south of Lubbock will be inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame.

On Thursday, Corbin joins fellow native sons Douglas McGrath (Midland) and Marvin Lee Aday, aka Meat Loaf, (Dallas) along with Angie Dickinson and Danny Trejo at a new venue, ACL Live, for the annual awards that precede the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival.

Unfailingly gracious to fans, Corbin has never forgotten his dear friend Ben Johnson's line: "I'm not the best actor in the world, but I'm the best Ben Johnson." And this year's big-hearted, chatty and humorous overdue honoree is surely the world's best Barry Corbin.

Corbin was interviewed by phone while being driven to a costume fitting for "Modern Family" in Los Angeles (he will guest star as Cam's gruff dad in a May sweeps episode). Still one of the busiest actors in Texas, he just finished "Shadow on the Mesa," a post-Civil War Western for the Hallmark Channel. And though he says he won't touch anything invented after 1950, he'll go from Austin to Baton Rouge, La., for his first "webisode," a short Internet video. "I don't know what it is," he says. "My son says it's on a computer. But they called me, and I said I'd do it. It's something new."

Fans know the deep-voiced performer from myriad TV and film roles including General Beringer in "WarGames," Fat Zack in "Any Which Way You Can," Ellis in Oscar-winner "No Country for Old Men" and, of course, former astronaut Maurice Minnifield in the "Northern Exposure" series.

To land the role of mouthy fitness buff Minnifield, Corbin dropped to the floor and did push-ups while auditioning. But the actor says he's nothing like the macho character he played in more than 100 episodes. "He was funny, but he didn't know it. I'm moderately funny, and I know it."

Fans know him, too, from his appearances on scores of hit series including "Dallas," "Columbo," "M*A*S*H" and "The Closer" and from five video games technophobe Corbin says he's never seen.

But what many don't know about the solid 6-footer (in boots) is that he's a trained ballet dancer, a Shakespearean actor, an alopecia areata spokesman and the father of a daughter he didn't know he had until 1991.

In 1965, Corbin explains, his girlfriend called to tell him she was pregnant. He assured her they'd wed after his summer job with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. Then she called again, claiming a false alarm.

"Twenty-six years later," the actor says, "my agent gets a call," from a woman saying she's Corbin's daughter. "The interesting thing about this is she's probably right," Corbin told the agent. "Give me her phone number."

Adopted as an infant, Shannon Ross was married and had a son with health issues before she researched her genetics and tracked down the birth mother who identified the actor Shannon liked on a Birdseye commercial as her birth dad.

"She's a godsend," says Corbin, the father of three sons. "When you have a daughter, you fall in love. We hit it off as if we'd known each other forever. We never miss a day talking to each other."

The actor's sons are far-flung: Art teacher Bo lives in Brooklyn, computer whiz Jim in Michigan and bartender-actor Christopher in L.A. Corbin sold his ranch and lives near Ross and her family in Handley, in eastern Fort Worth.

Like her birth dad, Shannon's at home in the saddle, and together they rode horseback to the Emmys in the 1990s. "It was the last season of ‘Northern Exposure,' " the actor says. "And I was in a dispute with the producers. They didn't want me to go to the Emmys," he says.

So Corbin called a friendly wrangler, requested two matched mounts, got a permit from Pasadena and trotted up to the awards.

Named for "Peter Pan" author James M. Barrie by his teacher mom, Leonard Barrie Corbin grew up spending Saturday afternoons at Lamesa's Majestic Theater.

At first, he says, he idolized the cowboy hero but decided character actors such as Gabby Hayes had more fun.

"In eighth grade," he says, "they told me girls would like me better if I played football. So I played for a while, but I hated it. The kid across from me outweighed me by 75 pounds, had whiskers and shaved." Run over too many times, he tripped the bruiser and was tossed off the team.

That was fine with Corbin, who preferred to watch play rehearsals at the high school and took ballet from a Lithuanian ballet master imported by a Lubbock oilman to teach his daughter.

In the late '50s and early '60s, he studied theater arts with professors Clifford Ashby and Ronald E. Schulz at Texas Tech University. At 21 he joined the Marines, served stateside two years, then returned to Tech, where he talked G.W. Bailey into a career change.

"You can act," he told the future "Police Academy" star. "Why do you want to be a lawyer? All you do is sit around and shuffle papers." Bailey will introduce his friend and mentor of 50 years on Thursday.

For years, Corbin bounced around the country playing regional, straw-hat and dinner theaters as well as the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn. "I'm still a gypsy," he says. "I keep a bag packed."

His website says he played the lead in "Henry V" on Broadway. "Actually I played Gower and understudied Pistol," he says. "My father brought my mother up to New York to see it. It was the first time he figured I wasn't robbing 7-Elevens."

But "Henry V" was the favorite play of his lawyer dad, a state senator, county judge and school principal. "And he hated the production. It's the ultimate pro-war play, but it was during Vietnam, and the director turned it into an anti-war play. The only people who liked it was the cast of ‘Hair.' "

In 1977, he moved to California and for two years wrote 15-minute plays for National Public Radio. Then the real-life cowboy with a collection of silver buckles from cutting-horse competitions broke into film as John Travolta's Uncle Bob in "Urban Cowboy."

There's a reason the actor always appears with a shaved head, hat or hairpiece. In 1996, he lost most of his hair to an autoimmune skin disease. "I got alopecia late in life," he says. "I didn't know what it was. I started looking kind of ratty."

That spawned rumors he was in chemo and got him thinking about kids, especially girls, who get the disease. "They even lose their eyebrows. It's a blow to kids' egos." To educate the public and encourage afflicted youngsters, he served with passion as the National Alopecia Areata Foundation spokesman.

Asked to keynote the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., last month, the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame member talked about the endangered Western.

"Not many people have the experience to make Westerns. We're losing the knowledge. We're losing the equipment. I only know one full-time wrangler, Jack Lilley, who worked on ‘Shadow on the Mesa.' "

Believing people are hungry for heroes, Corbin continues his one-man show "Charles Goodnight's Last Night," in which he transforms himself on stage into the legendary old trailblazer. Co-written with cowboy/poet-songwriter Andy Wilkinson, it premiered to acclaim in 1996 at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. And, yes, he'd love to play Charles Goodnight in Austin. Just ask him.

The Texas Film Hall of Fame Awards

When: Thursday. Red carpet, 6 to 7 p.m.; dinner and silent auction, 7 to 8 p.m.; awards show and concert, 8 to 10 p.m.

Where: ACL Live, 310 W. Second St.

Musical guests: Grupo Fantasma, Nakia, Suzanna Choffel

Presenters: G.W. Bailey, Robert Rodriguez, Brett Cullen, Caroline Rhea

Cost: $75 and up;

Texas Film Hall of Fame Honorees

Meat Loaf (Marvin Lee Aday)

Born: Sept. 27, 1947, Dallas

Career highlights: Made his first big film splash in 1975's "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Other credits include: "Roadie" (1980), "The Squeeze" (1987), "Wayne's World" (1992), "The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag" (1992), "Leap of Faith" (1992), "Spice World" (1997), "Gunshy" (1998), "Fight Club" (1999), "The Salton Sea" (2002). TV credits include "The Equalizer," "Lightning Force," "Tales from the Crypt," "Nash Bridges," "House, M.D." "Monk" and "Glee."

Upcoming films: "Snitch" (2012), "A White Trash Christmas" (2013)

Other details: He and Jim Steinman teamed up in 1977 to release the operatic rock album, "Bat Out of Hell." It went on to sell more than 30 million copies and was followed up with the highly successful "Bat Out of Hell II."

Angie Dickinson Accepting the Star of Texas Award for "Rio Bravo"

Born: Sept. 30, 1931, Kulm, N.D.

Career highlights: "Rio Bravo" (1959), "Ocean's Eleven" (1960), "The Sins of Rachel Cade" (1961), "The Killers" (1964), "Point Blank" (1967), "Pretty Maids All in a Row" (1971), "Big Bad Mama: (1974), "Dressed to Kill" (1980). On TV: "Police Woman" (1974-78), "Wild Palms" (1993), "The Larry Sanders Show" (1997). Winner of two Golden Globes, in 1960 as Most Promising Newcomer and in 1975 as Best TV Actress-Drama, for "Police Woman."

Other details: She got her first bit part in a Warner Brothers film in 1954 and gained television fame in the TV series "The Millionaire" (1955). "Rio Bravo" was her breakout film role.

Douglas McGrath

Born: Feb. 2, 1958, Midland

Career highlights: Writer/director for "Emma" (1996), "Company Man" (2000), "Nicholas Nickleby" (2002), "Infamous" (2006). Also directed "I Don't Know How She Does It" (2011). Other writing credits: "Saturday Night Live" (1980-81), "L.A. Law," (1989), "Born Yesterday" (1993) "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994). Oscar nomination for screenplay with Woody Allen, "Bullets Over Broadway." Twice nominated for a Writers Guild of America award.

Other details: Former columnist for The New Republic

Danny Trejo

Born: May 16, 1944, Los Angeles

Career highlights: "Mi Vida Loca" (1993), "Desperado" (1995), "Heat" (1995), "From Dusk Till Dawn" (1996), "Dilemma" (1997), "Con Air" (1997), "Point Blank" (1998), "Inferno" (1999), "Reindeer Games" (2000), "Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams" (2002), "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over" (2003), "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" (2003), "Grindhouse" (2007), "Predators" (2010), "Machete" (2010), "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D" (2011).

Other details: A frequent collaborator with Austin director Robert Rodriguez.