"There's a woman who just called from Arlington, Texas," Barkworth began in a trembling voice. "She says that she's your daughter. But you don't have to do anything about this, because it's probably a scam."
Corbin, 51, was silent for a moment. "The interesting thing about this whole deal," he finally told Barkworth, "is that it's probably true."
In a split second, Corbin's past had sprung back to shake the firm foundation of his family and prove that sometimes life is stranger than television. After breaking the news to Sue, Corbin called up Shannon Ross, 27, the product of a short romance from his school days in Texas, with someone with whom he had long since lost touch. "Is this Shannon?" asked the actor.
"Yes, it is," she said.
"I guess I'm your father," he said.
"Well, I guess you are!" Shannon replied with a laugh. The two got acquainted in an hour-long conversation in which they talked about everything from their families to horseback riding. As they were hanging up, Corbin said quietly, "I love you, honey." Ross, a part-time student at North Texas State University, said she loved him too. "Then I heard him start to cry," she says.
Over the next 14 months, and some 15 visits, Shannon, who shares her father's brown eyes and Lone Star drawl, miraculously built a relationship with Corbin that appears stronger than many parent-child lies forged at birth. "We are so close temperamentally and emotionally," says Corbin, who accepted Shannon without demanding any tests proving his paternity, "that we formed a bond that had probably already been there." And one that reaches to a third generation. For Ross has two children of her own, Jordan, 2, and Cori, 9 months, from a just-ended four-year marriage to Arlington police officer Jim Ross.
It was her second pregnancy, in fact, that led Ross to Corbin in the first place. Because Jordan had been born with a not uncommon disorder, scoliosis, which causes curvature of the spine, Shannon wondered about her genetic history. With the blessing of her adoptive parents, John and Gina Walker, an internist and a housewife in Arlington, Ross began the search for her natural mother and father. Within a month, the Methodist Mission Home in San Antonio, from which she was adopted, helped her track down her mother.
"She was a little surprised to hear from me, but she kind of expected it too," says Ross of the woman whose identity she chooses not to reveal. Her mother told Shannon that no one on her side of the family had scoliosis, then gave her the name of her father—Barry Corbin—and asked if she knew who he was.
"No," replied Ross. "Why would I?" Ross' mother explained that Corbin is an actor. "She told me that he was on a show called Northwest Territory," says Ross. "I thought for a minute and said. 'Could it be Northern Exposure?' " Shannon happened to be a fan. After the initial phone conversation with her mother, whom she has met in person and now talks with regularly, she wailed a couple of weeks before contacting Corbin. "I was nervous, she admits—and she was also bracing for the worst. "He plays a grumpy guy on TV, so I wasn't sure what he would be like. It would have been OK if he didn't want to see me. I would have; been glad to know who he was so I could still watch him and know he was all right."
Eleven days after making contact. Corbin (who knows of no incidence of scoliosis in his family) flew Shannon to L.A. for the Fourth of July weekend. "I knew who she was the minute I saw her," he says. Recalls Ross: "We just hugged each other and cried." Back at Corbin's house, Ross got acquainted with her two new half brothers, who were excited if confused, as well as Sue, a former actress who later showed Shannon family pictures. "She was real nice," says Ross. Corbin then escorted Shannon to a horse competition in Temecula, Calif. "We hit it off real good right quick," he says.
Three weeks later Corbin flew down to Texas to meet the Walkers. "It was kind of strange," says Shannon, "but both dads arc easygoing. They talked about old movies." Shannon believes she has caused no pain to her adoptive parents by seeking out her natural ones. "Our relationship is exactly the same, just as it is with my older brother and sister"—Danny, 33, a tax appraiser, and Suzanne, 24, a recent college graduate. "They're not jealous. I just haw more people to love now.
Accepting the unusual extended family may be more difficult for Corbin's wife, Sue, who doesn't spend as much time with Shannon as Bain does. "You can't have something like this happen," says Exposure costar and friend John Cullum, "without it being disruptive."
The disruption was a long time coming. In 1964, Corbin, the Lamesa, Tex.-born son of a state senator father and teacher mother, was finishing his drama studies at Texas Tech in Lubbock when he met Shannon's mother there. According to Corbin, they were just friends, but "passion overtakes folks sometimes." No real romance ensued, but they called each other now and again. The summer after he left Tech, Corbin was performing Shakespeare in Boulder, Colo., when he got a call from the woman, who said she thought she was pregnant. "I told her, 'Well, we'll get married when I get back,' " remembers Barry. Soon after, she called again to say it had turned out she wasn't pregnant, and they went their separate ways.
Over the next five years, Corbin bounced around Chicago, North Carolina and Connecticut, acting in regional theater before landing on Broadway in a flower-powered version of Henry V in 1969. Three years later he met Sue Berger while doing summer stock in Alabama. They lived together in Manhattan and married in 1976. The next year the couple moved to California and in 1980, at 39, Corbin accepted his first film role—as Uncle Bob in Urban Cowboy. But it was not until Northern Exposure that Corbin settled down into the kind of steady acting job that brings sustained friendships along with a regular paycheck. "Barry's kind of surprising in the way he reveals things," says John Cullum. "He mentioned that he was a new father, and I played it cool, like he was joking. Then it turned out he wasn't kidding. I was thunderstruck."
These days, as Corbin travels between Redmond, Wash. (where the show is filmed) and L.A., Shannon has become a regular companion. When they are not together, they talk daily on the phone. "We'd like to make up for lost time, but we can't," says Ross. "But I don't think we're just in some kind of honeymoon phase." Corbin concurs. "We've known each other for over a year," he says, "and we haven't got tired of each other yet."
ANDREW ABRAHAMS in Redmond
On Newsstands Now
- Kim's Delivery Room Drama!
- Katie: A Year After Split
- Princess Kate: Palace's Baby Plan Revealed
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine