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Before he was a TV star, Barry Corbin was a Marine

Before Barry Corbin was a household name, he was a Marine. Read this exclusive interview with We Are The Mighty.
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Side-by-side pictures of Barry Corbin, on left as a Marine, on right, acting in a film wearing a cowboy hat.
Barry Corbin

Barry Corbin is one of the most prolific actors, especially in popular TV series of our times. Corbin got his start in acting in Shakespeare in the 1960s. Corbin studied theater at Texas Tech, then took a break from school and joined the Marine Corps in 1961. He served two years in the Corps and returned to Texas Tech.

Corbin’s big break for TV came in 1979 as Sheriff Fenton Washburn on the smash evening soap opera hit Dallas. He appeared on the show during its first five seasons on air. He guest starred on M*A*S*H, The A-Team, The Twilight Zone, Murder, She Wrote, Matlock and the great western miniseries Lonesome Dove all before he got to play a main leading role on TV in Northern Exposure. He climbed a tall mountain and was ready for his success when he arrived at the summit. He did five seasons on Northern Exposure, won acclaim and then moved on to guest work on more popular TV shows of the 1990s. These include Columbo, Ellen, Walker, Texas Ranger, The Drew Carey Show, Spin City, JAG and King of the Hill.

Barry Corbin (center right) with the cast of Northern Exposure. Photo courtesy of imdb.com.

He had gained so much momentum with his career and acting he again booked a main role on One Tree Hill as Coach Whitey Durham for seven seasons of the series. When not on set as the Coach, he worked on The Closer, The Unit and did features such as Dukes of Hazard and the Oscar-winning film No Country for Old Men. In the 2010s he anchored another hit show Anger Management, which starred Charlie Sheen and Selma Blair, all the while picking up guest roles on Modern Family, Dallas (a revival, but this time as a different character), The Ranch, Young Sheldon and Better Call Saul in 2020. Most recently, Corbin has been on huge shows such as Yellowstone and Tulsa King. Rounding his work now includes Kevin Costner and Sly Stallone. No small victories for a Marine born and raised in Texas who raises cattle and does ranching in his spare time. Now this year, he plays a supporting role in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated film Killers of the Flower Moon. A few more interesting notes on Corbin include his work in voice acting in such projects Command & Conquer series, Madden NFL and Steven Spielberg’s Directors Chair video games.

Corbin with Kyra Sedgewick in The Closer. Photo courtesy of imdb.com.

One of Corbin’s pastimes is cutting-horse competitions, which is a judged competition with a horse and a rider to show how well they can handle cattle. He has won many competitions and enjoys volunteering for rodeos and is a spokesman for the National Alopecia Areata Foundation. He was awarded a lifetime achievement award by Estes Park Film Festival, was inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame in 2012 and in 2014 was inducted into the National Multicultural Heritage Museum. Corbin has lived an eventful, adventurous and artistic life. WATM sat down with Corbin to talk about his service, achievements and life.

Barry Corbin as a private in the Marines. Photo courtesy of barrycorbin.com.

WATM: What was your Marine Corps service like?

Well, there’s not too much to tell about my Marine Corps service as it was spent out in Southern California the whole time. I did basic training at MCRD San Diego and then Advanced Infantry Training at Camp Pendleton, went home for leave and then came back. I was there for a little while and then got sick with pneumonia. From there, I was sick and got a medical discharge. That was the extent of it. I do want to thank all of the service members serving right for standing between us and chaos. The whole world is in a state of being ready to fight. We have the best Armed services there are in the world. There are many “ex” things in the world…but there are no “ex-Marines” and there are no “ex-Texans.” I joined the Corps with my brother and he served longer than I did. We were the first to serve in our family since the Civil War.

Barry Corbin (R) with Sam Elliott (L) on The Ranch. Photo courtesy of IMDB.com.

WATM: What did you bring back from the Corps to your acting?

I joined in 1962 and got out nearly two years later. Going through Marine Corps boot camp and Advanced Infantry Training is one of the best learning experiences you can have. It teaches you you are not the big chief, you are part of the team.

WATM: What inspired you to be an actor?

It was an ambition of mine from around 7 years old before I knew what I was getting myself into. I went to those old B movies and thought, “Well I can do that.” Most people say that when they are 7 years old, but most grow out of it. I guess I never grew up. Still haven’t….you’ve gotta stay curious. Many people when they get old get calloused and not curious. I get more curious with age…I gotta stay alive to see where this world is going until at least 90.

Wild Bill Eliott. Photo courtesy of imdb.com.

WATM: Who were your favorite stars of those B-Westerns you watched?

Well, I loved Wild Bill Eliott (of Red Ryder fame). Later on, I found out a friend and fellow actor, Ben Johnson (Oscar-winning actor and western star), taught Eliott to ride.

John Wayne and Ben Johnson in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Photo courtesy of imdb.com.

WATM: If you could share one piece of wisdom with everyone, what would it be?

Try to live your life so that when you’re gone you did more good than bad. We’re always going to leave the world a little better or worse than when we found it. Let’s all try to leave it a little better and then we’ll all come out ahead.

WATM: Who influenced you most in life?

My grandad influenced me a lot in life. He was a cotton farmer in West Texas. He had been a cowboy when he was younger. He started a dry land cotton farm in the late 1920s, right in the middle of the Dust Bowl. It had been raining and was green when he bought it in 1928. In 1930, the rain stopped, and the wind started blowing, which blew all of New Mexico down into West Texas. He raised cotton, had dry land, and no irrigation all through the Depression and the Dust Bowl. He was one of the few that survived it; he survived it because he used everything he had. His old ranch house was built in the 1890s and it didn’t have electricity until the 1940s and only running water in the kitchen from a pipe from the windmill well outside. From the windmill they had a little generator that generated electricity for a little light bulb above the sink and a radio so they could listen to the Grand Ole Opry or baseball. The whole place smelled like coal oil and Bull Durham Tobacco smoke. He was a hard worker and built a house and many barns throughout the rest of his life. My grandad is a lot harder worker than I am.

WATM: What are you most proud of in life?

My children! I’ve got four kids and they are all good citizens and great people. My oldest son joined the U.S. Army as a combat videographer right after 9/11 and served with paratroopers. He jumped out of airplanes carrying a pack, a rifle and a tripod. He joined at 30, so he was the old man of the group. Now, he lives on the Atlantic Ocean on a boat. He is an adventurous soul. We are a patriotic bunch. My father attempted to join the service in World War II but suffered from polio and his right hand was crippled, which means he could not fire a weapon. He went on to be a county judge and state senator, so he still served our community.

WATM: What is the next project you are working on?

Things have been slow since we have been on strike with the Screen Actors Guild. I will be doing some work on an indie project and currently have my most recent film out called Killers of the Flower Moon, which is directed by Martin Scorsese. (Corbin plays Undertaker Turton.)

Photo courtesy of imdb.com.

WATM: Do you have a favorite director you have worked with?

Most of them are ones who have been actors and now are directors. Directors a lot of times don’t know what directions to give people. They don’t speak our language. I had a director say once, ‘Don’t make that face.’ I told him that was not very helpful. ‘What does that mean?’ He said, ‘Whatever face you just made.’ I said, ‘When you hired this face, you don’t like this face, why don’t you fire it and hire another one.’ The director responded with, ‘Just don’t make the face you just made.’ I said, “Do you think while I’m shaving in the morning I am making faces and practicing that?” The director replied, ‘I don’t know what you do in the morning.’ I replied, ‘Well, I don’t do that,’ and I said, ‘Well why don’t you tell me to think something else?’ The director responded with, ‘Ok, think something else. Alright, roll it. Action.’ I did the same thing I did before and he said, ‘That’s brilliant. Ok. Thank you.’ He just wanted to say something.

Corbin in No Country for Old Men. Photo courtesy of imdb.com.

He also worked with the Cohen Brothers on No Country for Old Men. They didn’t give Corbin any direction. In the scene with him and Tommy Lee Jones, the brothers whispered to each other and then said, ‘Let’s do it again.’ They do it again and they said, ‘Ok. Print.’ I asked them after the scene, ‘Do you ever give anybody direction?’ Ethan Coen said, ‘If we cast it right we don’t have to.’ I thought that was the smartest thing any director ever said to me.

WATM: What is your best acting advice?

I’d have to repeat what Jimmy Cagney said, ‘Walk in. Plant your feet. And tell the truth.’

James Cagney. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Watch the full interview here: