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And unlike many kids, Corbin simply loved the process. "It's a subtle difference, but it's there," Simmons says. "Some kids don't look at it as work. They just want to do it and be the best at it."
Simmons refuses to take any child who needs to earn money. "I've had kids who come up and say, 'I need this part because my mother needs to pay the mortgage,'" she says. "I've had kids crying in my class because they're hungry, and their mom won't let them eat so they can be thin enough to get the role. It's frightening what some people will do to be famous."
Leno's producer told Gary that the comic had decided not to do the show with young stand-ups, but in the past they'd had kids with wacky collections. Did Corbin (wink, wink) collect anything unusual?
Gary didn't hesitate. "He collects a number of things," Gary said. "Can I get back to you on that?"
Overnight, Gary and the family came up with ideas for four collections: legs (from tables, chairs, dolls, etc.), insoles from people's shoes, toilet paper from different restaurants and cow patties in unusual shapes. The producer asked them to put together a sample interview on tape about each of Corbin's collections.
Leno loved the cow patties.
When Corbin came onstage, the poop, gathered by Corbin and his dad on an uncle's farm, was displayed on a low table in front of Leno's desk. He never batted an eye at Leno's questions, rolling wherever the conversation went and inserting his own well-rehearsed lines as if they just occurred to him.
In other words, he acted.
That same month, Corbin learned he had won a part in the film Seabiscuit, which he'd auditioned for months earlier. It was a big summer movie with a prestigious cast. Corbin was to play actor Jeff Bridges' son, killed in the first act. "I flipped out," Corbin says. "It was awesome!"
They signed the contract, but the movie didn't start shooting for five months. Meanwhile, Corbin grew five inches.
Gary says director Gary Ross went ahead with Corbin because he looked so much like Bridges' son. "I got to drive the old car and do the death scene," Corbin says. "It was really creepy looking at myself with the makeup like I was dead."
While filming on a back lot and at a California farm, Corbin acquired yet another accoutrement of the Hollywood actor: a manager. Managers focus on actors' long-term goals, providing day-to-day feedback that agents don't have time for. In return, they earn 10 to 15 percent of the actor's income. Corbin's on-set tutor recommended a manager named Lynda Goodfriend, once an actress on Happy Days, who agreed to represent Corbin after seeing the Leno tape. "He's a wonderful actor," Goodfriend says. "He has a real down-to-earth quality, not the glossy L.A. kid with blow-dried hair. Being such a sweet kid counts a lot in my book."
But after they shot his last scene, agent Gossett called Corbin with bad news. The director decided that a smaller child cradled in his grieving father's arms would wring more emotion. He was being replaced.
Corbin called his father sobbing and said, "Dad, I want to come home."
"That's fine," Gary told him. "But if you come home, we're not going back. Do you want to think about it?"
"Yeah," Corbin said.
Corbin remembered Goodfriend's rule of thumb: Only one out of three people make it in Hollywood, because the other two give up. Three hours later, Corbin called his father back. "I'm going to stay," he said.
Since Leno and Seabiscuit, Corbin has come this close to several other roles, including the lead in a TV comedy. But nothing much else has happened, and the Coronas blame getting braces and the weird nether zone that actors find themselves in after hitting 15 or 16.
Goodfriend says it comes down to money.
"They want actors 18 years old to play 15," says Goodfriend, "because they can work long hours, and they don't have to hire a teacher. I've seen it happen to every client I've had."
An adult who looks 15 is a better bargain than a real 15-year-old and usually has more acting chops. That matters as more serious subjects--drug addiction, crime, violence--are introduced into roles for ever-younger actors.
Another problem is the pressure to be beautiful. "The girls, at age 12, they can be girl-next-door," says Goodfriend, "but at 13, they want them to be sexy, with cute little boobs. After 15, they want boys to be handsome, athletic young studs. Mini-adults."
And those braces. The Coronas had a Dallas orthodontist put on clear bands but learned that no Los Angeles orthodontist would touch them when a problem arose. Gary negotiated a deal with an L.A. orthodontist to put on a whole new set and then take them off if Corbin books business. But the Coronas know that casting directors have a hard time seeing beyond the metal.
It was at the Smokehouse in Los Angeles, a restaurant where industry people hang out, that Gary came up with a scheme to get Corbin through adolescence. Everyone was talking about how Hilary Duff's mother conceived the Lizzie Maguire pilot and sold it to Nickelodeon. The Lizzie Maguire Movie had a $17.3 million opening weekend, huge for a cable TV star. She's released a CD, starred with Steve Martin in Cheaper by the Dozen, and a merchandising empire is not far behind. The Houston-born star turned 16 in September.
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