Barry Corbin is best known for his role as ex-astronaut Maurice Minnifield on the long-running television series Northern Exposure. To fans of the Lonesome Dove miniseries, he will always be Roscoe Brown, July Johnson’s bumbling yet kind-hearted deputy. But the accomplished actor has played many roles in his career, both on and off-screen, including as a strong advocate for the West. American Cowboy caught up with the Emmy Award-winning actor to learn more.
Like many of your generation, you enjoyed watching Westerns as a kid. Although I’ve read that you were more inspired by the sidekicks and character actors. Can you tell us why?
A lot of people aspire to be the hero, but that’s never been my thing. I realized early on that the sidekicks had a lot more fun than the golden boys. The main character had to carry the story and be the hero, while the other guys could just be funny. That’s where it all started in terms of the types of roles I like to play.
Readers might be surprised to know that you’re a trained Shakespearean actor and also studied ballet.
That’s true. All of that’s good training, no matter what you’re doing. Anything you do in life is going to work for you if you’re an actor, because you can draw from those experiences.
I also heard that your career direction once literally rested on the flip of a coin. Can you elaborate?
My first wife and I were in Colorado, where I was acting in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. She wanted to go to New York and I wanted to go to California, so we flipped a coin and ended up heading to New York. We ran out of money in Chicago and stayed there for about a year. I did stock and outdoor drama and traveled around performing in regional theater. We finally made it to New York and I got my equity card. I did Broadway; off Broadway; off, off Broadway—you name it, I did it!
And your first big film role was in Urban Cowboy?
We filmed that down in Texas—in Pasadena and Houston. I was proud of that role because it didn’t show that I had a theatrical background. I don’t want the audience to see the wheels turning, you know? I want them to believe that they’re really watching the person I’m portraying, rather than someone pretending to be that person. That’s what I strive for in all my roles.
Can you tell us about your relationship with horses and riding?
I’ve always loved horses. In New York I’d go to Central Park and look at ’em, but I never rode any while I was there. Then I went out to California and did The Thorn Birds, where I rode a little. On Lonesome Dove I had to waddle around on that big ol’ horse, Hud, and that got me back into riding. Within a year or so I’d bought a cutting horse and entered a few competitions—just having fun.
I don’t have my ranch anymore, but I still live in Texas and have a small house and some chickens. My old cutting horse died and I gave my other horses to a children’s riding program, but I still try to get on a horse every once in awhile to see if I still can.
You recently wrapped up work on The Homesman, directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones, correct?
Yes. I did a day’s filming on that one. It takes place in Kansas in the 1850s and early 1860s—before the Civil War. It’s based on a book written by Glendon Swarthout, who also wrote The Shootist. It’s a wonderful book and I think it’s going to be a terrific movie. [Ed note: The Homesman is scheduled for a Nov. 7 release.]
What was it like working with Tommy Lee again?
It was great. I always like working with Tommy. He’s a good man and it was an enjoyable experience. He’s very meticulous and wants it done the way he envisions it.
You’ve been honored by the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum with a Buffalo Bill Cody Award for quality family entertainment and also a Wrangler Award for Conagher. You’re also a regular presenter at the museum’s Western Heritage Awards. What’s led you to stay so involved?
Anyone who’s ever in Oklahoma City needs to visit the cowboy museum. It’s a magnificent facility and they’re doing great things to help keep the history of our country alive. In the broad scope, it’s really the heart of the West. Katharine Ross was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers this year, and it was fun to see her and Sam [Elliott, her husband].
Are there any stars of early Westerns that you got to know during your career?
Ben Johnson and I got to be pretty close friends toward the end of his life. What you saw on the screen was pretty much how he was. He would say, ‘I may not be the best actor in the world, but I am the best Ben Johnson.’
I also knew Dobe Carey pretty well. I spent a week with him up in Durango, and he’d tell me stories about his dad [Harry Carey] and his dad’s friends, like Will Rogers. I was always a Will Rogers fan, even though he died before I was born.
When I was a kid, there were still Civil War and World War I veterans alive and the Old West didn’t seem like it was so long ago.
Did that spark your interest in Western film and literature?
I’ve always been interested in history and mythology, and to me, the Western is our mythology. For the Greeks it was the Iliad and the Odyssey, and for us it’s Zane Gray, Owen Wister, and Louis L’amour. It all boils down to define our national character.
If you go to any ranch in the West, you’ll see two things on the bookshelf. One of ’em will be Lonesome Dove and the other is The Time it Never Rained by Elmer Kelton. Those two books tell the story of who those people were living out there in the ranchlands.
Unfortunately, the country is changing quite a bit to be less about cooperation and more about angry exchanges, but we’re still the same people—we just need to get back to that sense of cooperation and respect for one another. That’s part of the Western deal: You help your neighbors when they need it, but you also leave them alone to do what they want to do.