The Evening I Ate Nachos and Learned Life Lessons with Legendary Texas Actor Barry Corbin

by Martin Ramirez on June 26, 2024 in Entertainment, Film,

There’s a lot you can learn from the illustrious career of the iconic Barry Corbin. From the ranches of Lubbock to earnest beginnings in stage acting, from acclaimed present-day roles in Yellowstone, Tulsa King, and Killers of the Flower Moon to a series of one-man shows titled An Evening with Barry Corbin, Barry has seen it all. Done it all. 

So when Barry invited me, a writer for Texas Lifestyle Magazine, to dinner at El Gabacho Tex-Mex Grill in Arlington, Texas, I took him up on it. And over a few plates of chips and queso, tacos and tamales, and dessert nachos, Barry divulged many life lessons such as sacrifices, the importance of learning every day, and what it means to do honest work.

Legendary Texas actor Barry Corbin. Photo courtesy Barry Corbin.

You grew up in Lubbock but always dreamt of New York. Is that where your acting career started?

Yes, in ‘65 I left Lubbock for the last time. I did stage work when I was in New York. There were two or three television shows. One little independent movie. But mainly it was just all stage work. And the first job I got in California was Urban Cowboy. Everybody thought they found me at a petrochemical plant around Houston; just some guy they found and hired. They didn’t realize that I spent about 20 years on stage performing everything from Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams.

Do you have a favorite Shakespearean play?

I like most of them. I like comedies the most – Sir John Falstaff in Merry Wives of Windsor. But I also liked playing Macbeth. 

Barry’s recurring one-man show An Evening with Barry Corbin. Photo courtesy Barry Corbin.

Is there a role you always wished you played?

Not really. I’ve enjoyed it, but I’ve been doing this one man show where I just go out and tell stories. That’s been doing well. But as far as doing regular plays, I’m not really that interested in doing that anymore. If you sign up to run with a play and go on tour, you do the same thing over and over. I used to not mind; I’d get some inspiration from the audience. But as I’ve gotten older, I like to do it and get done with it. The one-man deal I do, I’m doing well. I just go out and tell stories. And it’s never the same.

How often do you get a chance to do your one man shows?

I usually do two or three a month. We have a show coming up in November that I’m looking forward to in Branson, Missouri. Never been to Branson.

How tough was it to be an actor in New York?

I wouldn’t want to work for what they work for now. When I lived in New York, my apartment had rent control. I think it was $90 a month. But the whole apartment was the size of this. (He points to a section of the restaurant with a sofa, table, and picture frame.) It had a little kitchen with a bathtub in the kitchen. Little closet with a toilet in it.

What did you learn from stage acting or from the theater that prepared you for the screen?

I was talking to an actor last weekend about whether you can teach somebody to act. He didn’t believe you could. And I said, “Well, I agree with you.” I think if you can’t do it already, then you might just, well, not even think about it. You can be taught techniques and tricks, things that help you. But if you don’t have that, then there’s no point in trying. You have to give up too much in life. It’s a hard way to make a living.

As a stage actor, you might have a home base, but you don’t really have a home. Your home is the road, the way I see it.

Barry’s roles include many iconic cowboy roles. Photo courtesy Barry Corbin.

That’s a pretty cowboy way of looking at it.

Oh yeah. Always staying ahead of the sheriff, I’d call it. There used to be boarding houses in all the cities that said, “no actors, dogs or Irishmen.”

Definitely a tough way to start a career. Is there anything you wish you would have known sooner?

No, I learned what I needed to know about when I needed to know it, pretty much. Necessity is the best teacher. You learn to do something as you need to do it. Anything I’ve ever learned in life was just the result of experimentation. I realized that I had to do something to get somewhere. So I figured out what it is I needed to do and did that.

That’s a lifelong lesson: adaptability.

If you’re not learning something every day, then you’ve wasted that day. Need to learn something new every day. Which means when you get old, you’ve got to forget something old every day.

Barry rides in Conagher. Photo courtesy Barry Corbin.

Do you see yourself not working?

No. The only way I’ll stop working is if I get incapacitated or can’t remember my lines. That’s when a lot of actors scare themselves, when they can’t remember their lines anymore. Probably don’t have the confidence anymore.

You had a really good monologue on Yellowstone when you were talking to Jimmy about being a cowboy. There was another great conversation you had with Buster Welch that seemed a bit unscripted. Can you tell me more about this?

Taylor [Sheridan] said, “I’m going to roll camera. I’m not going to say action. I’m not going to say cut. Just you talk to Buster about horses.” So we sat there and talked about horses for about an hour. They kept reloading the camera and kept running. Buster never knew about the camera. We talked about this horse, that horse. They used about three lines in all. But he said they had about an hour’s worth of good stuff. And he said he could’ve taken any three lines. He said he’d donate the rest to Texas Tech Archives.

That’s the last time I saw Buster alive. He died within the year after that. We shot that on my 80th birthday, Buster was about 93.

Barry Corbin as a child cowboy. Photo courtesy Barry Corbin.

Had y’all been friends before?

We’d been friends for quite a while. I knew a lot of those old cowboys. There’s only one left, Boots O’Neal out of the Four 6’s. He’s still working. He still gets horseback every day. He’s 92 and climbs up on them every day.

Seems like these rancher-cowboy values are hard to teach.

Well, it’s the way of life. Tom Blasingame up at the JA Ranch lived to 94. And the day he died was between Christmas and New Year. He got up on a young colt to go check the fences. He was out by himself. His horse came back to the ranch headquarters by himself, his reins tied up on the saddle horn. Tom had felt something wrong, tied up the reins on the saddle, walked away from the horse, laid down, and died. That was that. Working right to the end.

What is it about being on a ranch we can all learn from?

Most of the people out there are in their late teens or early twenties. They don’t really know anything about town. They’re almost “innocence in paradise.” And then you have a few old hands. They’re always there. They do whatever needs to be done. There’s no subtlety, no dishonesty about it.

Do you think honest work creates honest people, or is it the other way around?

It’s awfully hard to be dishonest when you’re doing honest work. I mean, I know people who go out there and say, “Oh, yeah, I’d like to help.” Well, they don’t do anything. In order to make a hand on the ranch you got to be there when you’re needed. Doing whatever needs to be done. You can’t wait for somebody to tell you. If you wait for someone to tell you, you’ll be sitting up on your horse the whole time.

A lesson we can all learn.

Well, you keep your eye open for anything that needs doing. If you’re riding a herd of cattle, and a calf runs off from the herd and heads for some brush or canyon, nobody needs to tell you. And nobody needs to tell your horse. You pick your horse’s head up, he looks around, and he goes ahead. That’s the way it is. You do what needs to be done.

Simple lessons that often get overlooked.

Yeah, well, it’s easy to overlook honest work. It’s not easy to overlook it if you’re doing it.

Do you have an interest in being one of the writers? Contribute to some of the monologues?

I do that a lot. John Badham [director War Games] asked if I could do something. Matthew Broderick played this teenager who’s about to start World War III. He runs over, pushes some guy out of the way who was typing. The guy that he pushed away was an Air Force major, who was also the technical director in the movie. He said, “Wait a minute, I’d never let this kid in here without a direct order from the general.” So, Badham asked me for a way to order the kid into the computer room. Said, “Do something colorful.” I said I can think of something like that. He said, “You won’t tell me what it is.” I said let’s just shoot it. So we shot it, and then he started to push the kid away and I said, “Damnit, I’d piss on a spark plug if it did any good. Let that kid in there!” Everyone laughed of course. And John Badham told everyone to get the laugh out of their system and to shoot it again. I thought they weren’t going to use it. But they used it.

The effortless talent of Barry Corbin. Photo courtesy Barry Corbin.

How often do you get a chance to ad-lib?

Well, quite a bit. It just depends on the director. Usually, with television, because of time constraints, they don’t have time for a bunch of ad libs. If you do something off script, you’ll have to have the okay from the home office. But if you’re doing a movie, the director usually says to do this or do that. I was working with Blake Edwards one time, Victor Victoria, and he said, “Don’t worry about the script. I just write those for the suits in the office. Just have some fun.” So, we ad-libbed the whole thing.

Seems like directors really trust you.

I’m trying to be as honest as I can be. It’s for the character.

Do you have a director or actor in mind that you’d like to work with?

No, not really. Most of the directors—best directors—I’ve worked with have been actors at sometime before. Sidney Poitier was a great director. Clint Eastwood. Blake Edwards started out as an actor. Taylor [Sheridan], he was an actor and then writer. Yeah, most of them have at least some experience. You got to have some experience as an actor. It’s a hard time giving notes to an actor because we speak a different language.

Do you have a favorite role that you played?

No, I like all of them. I just like doing it.

Barry Corbin portrait by Ara Dona. Photo courtesy Barry Corbin.

I remember seeing you in Modern Family. You were playing Cam’s dad.

Yea, that was a fun one to do. Ed O’Neill is a fun guy to work with. I liked him. I like all of them really. I get along with most actors. I’m really not much of a show-biz guy. I get along with everybody, but I really like to hang out with cowboys and oil-well workers.

Are there any other actors in the family?

My youngest son is Christopher Corbin. He does a little bit of work once in a while. All the other kids figured out something else to do, which is kind of a good thing, I think. I don’t encourage anybody to get involved in this rat race. I was asked one day, “You got any advice for anybody that wants to get into this business?” I said, “Well, if you want to act, I’d suggest you find something else to do to make a living. And you go join the community theater so that way you get to act.” If you’re like me, you spend all your time looking for work than doing the work. But I’ve been lucky in mine because I’ve always been able to find work. It’s really heartbreaking for a lot of people. It’s a tough business, but I don’t know what else I’d do.

My evening with Barry Corbin. Photo courtesy Martin Ramirez.


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Cover Photo courtesy Barry Corbin

Martin Ramirez is a brisket-eating, Shiner-loving, road-tripping enthusiast of all things Texas. This Dallas-born writer / adventurer is ready to take his ‘78 El Camino to find the best in food, fun, and fitness throughout the Lone Star State.