By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Even a 14-year-old can appreciate a swank dressing room: fruit basket, vase of flowers, even his own shower. Not to mention the sumptuous buffet in the "green room," where guests cool their heels. Corbin Corona and his parents, Gary and Detta Corona, attacked it with gusto.
Though his father's stomach was churning, Corbin wasn't nervous. That morning, the producer had sent a limo to pick up Corbin and his mother at the Oakwood Apartments, home to hundreds of child actors hoping to break into Hollywood. By law, child actors must receive four hours of schoolwork each day on set, monitored by a tutor/social worker. So Corbin spent the morning of October 15, 2002, studying instead of preparing for his big break--a break any adult stand-up comedian would stand naked on Sunset Boulevard to seize. Never mind that Corbin had yet to enter puberty and had never appeared on television.
There was no rehearsal beyond Corbin holding up his "collection"--dried cow patties in unusual shapes, such as a Cheshire cat and a shar-pei--to get the right camera angle. About 30 minutes before show time, Leno, wearing blue jeans, jutted his famous jaw into the dressing room for a few minutes to meet Corbin.
"Just remember, this isn't school," Leno said. "There aren't any grades here. Just have a good time."
Detta, Gary and brother Adam sat in the audience so Corbin couldn't see them. At 4:30 p.m., when Leno bounded onstage to do his monologue, Corbin listened from his dressing room to Leno's practiced patter and finally felt a tickle of fear.
He and his parents had talked about the risks. If he screwed up, or worse, if he wasn't funny, casting directors would remember Corbin as the kid who blew it on network television. But Corbin hadn't begged his parents to let him move from Highland Park to Hollywood a year earlier to wuss out now.
After actor David Arquette's spot, the assistant director walked Corbin to the stage. "Now don't worry," he said, "only 15 million people are watching." Suddenly, Corbin heard the music come up and Leno's voice booming: "My next guest has a very unusual hobby for a 14-year-old kid--well, for anybody. He collects cow patties. Please welcome from Dallas, Texas, Corbin Corona!"
And suddenly his fear evaporated. Corbin stepped confidently from behind the curtain, waving at the audience like it was his 10th appearance instead of his first. He plopped himself in the chair between Leno and Arquette. And, for the next eight-and-a-half minutes, Corbin made them laugh. Pulling the two men into the silliness of seeing portraits in poop--Arquette picked up two patties, put them on his ears and said, "Princess Leia!"--the straight-faced Corbin had Leno and the audience laughing with enthusiasm, not courtesy.
How a Highland Park teenager ended up on The Tonight Show holding up dried cow crap only weeks before being cast in the film Seabiscuit is the story of a family throwing itself--and its money--behind a son's dream.
Corbin wants to be a star.
"He definitely has a future in stand-up," says Colette Craan, who runs a comedy program for kids in L.A. called Standing Tall. "Definitely, definitely, definitely. It's just a matter of time. Corbin has a style about him. He's so hip. And being on The Tonight Show--people just don't get on The Tonight Show like that."
Every year thousands of kids stream to Los Angeles, hoping to become the next Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence) or Hilary Duff (Cheaper by the Dozen, The Lizzie Maguire Movie). But for every Frankie Muniz (Malcolm in the Middle, Agent Cody Banks) who finds fame on TV and in films, for every Anna Paquin, who won an Oscar for her performance at 13 in The Piano, there are hundreds who return home in frustration. Others, like The Beav, lose their cutes and disappear from sight.
The Coronas are determined that won't happen to their son, now 15. They have a plan to make sure Corbin's dream comes true, despite braces, growth spurts and competition from 23-year-old actors who play 16, the ideal teenagers in casting directors' weird math.
And if it takes raising a few million dollars to produce a film co-starring Corbin Corona, well, Gary and Detta Corona think that might be kinda fun. After all, how hard can it be?
Dying is easy; stand-up comedy is hard. Why do so many people want to do it?
Last winter, the Coronas watched their youngest son perform in front of a ballroom full of people in penguin suits. Corbin, at 14, was the opening act for a troupe from Second City, the Chicago comedy group, at a black-tie benefit for Gilda's Club (named after comedian Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer). His monologue, written by Corbin and his mother, was heavy on jokes about parents, siblings and school. Gary guffawed, particularly in response to the jokes at his expense. He was sitting on the edge of his chair, eyes fixed on his son with an intensity that lingered long after the laughs.
This may be the oddest family in Highland Park. You know another rich dad who dresses up for parties as Pee-Wee Herman? Whose kids don't hide in shame when he does the Pee-Wee dance? He didn't stop, by the way, when actor Paul Reubens got arrested for enjoying Nancy Nurse at a triple-X theater in Sarasota, Florida.
And then there are Gary's patents, two of which feature common themes: booze and his fear of germs. One patent is for a stainless steel contraption that fits into the ice bins in bars and restaurants. Instead of bartenders shoving wine bottles into the ice, possibly contaminating it with bacteria from their hands, the device keeps the bottles separate and cold. Gary says the invention is in the final stages of being approved by the National Sanitation Foundation.
"We tease Gary," Detta says. "He has OCD. The kids have to wash their hands a hundred times a day. We all make fun of him."
Gary's other creation is "Shot Party," a plastic contraption that solves the problem of how to get your shindig started. It holds 11 shot tubes in ice and includes alcoholic recipes ("Italian Valium"), drinking games and a spinner. It can be customized with a theme: "New Year's Eve," "St. Patrick's Day," "Mardi Gras," "Bachelor Party," "The-Divorce-is-Final Party." Look for it on the Internet and at gift stores in early 2004.
But when it comes to their kids, the Coronas' philosophy is anything but whimsical. If they want to reach for the stars, if they agree to work hard, Gary and Detta say, they'll put their love, time and money behind them 100 percent.
To call this family entrepreneurial is an understatement. When the Coronas got married 28 years ago, they immediately moved to Alaska to work on an oil pipeline. "We made a bunch of money and sent it home to a savings account," Detta says.
After a stint in Oklahoma, the Coronas moved to Dallas. Detta's perky demeanor and beautiful eyes--enormous, blue and shaped like a cat's--landed her a job as a flight attendant with Braniff Airlines. After graduate school at SMU, Gary started and sold four jewelry stores. He now handles his own investments and serves on the board of Internet America. Meanwhile, Detta learned court reporting and started her own business. She now has six other court reporters on contract.
The hard work has paid off. The Coronas and their three sons moved 10 years ago to a spacious house in Highland Park assessed at $1.8 million. It has 13 televisions, including one in the gazebo between the pool and the tennis court.
The kids worked, too. Oldest son Ben, now 23, started modeling for the Kim Dawson Agency at age 12. Adam, 18, now a senior at Highland Park High School, has always been a wheeler-dealer, Gary says. At age 12, he was downloading newly released DVDs from the Internet and selling them at school. "We immediately made him stop, because Adam was completely unaware of copyright infringement, " Gary says. "We did compliment him on his ingenuity."
When Corbin was 9, he, too, started modeling. "I saw how Ben was doing," Corbin says, home from L.A. for Christmas and sitting at a table in the family's den. "People would say to me, 'You're so cute. You should model.'" He started doing print and runway work, but when he discovered that the agency had an acting studio, Corbin begged his mother to let him take classes.
The class clown and a prankster, Corbin absolutely knew he wanted to be on TV. "If I'd see someone on TV my age in a role, I'd think, 'I can do better than that!'"
But Detta wasn't quick to sign him up. Corbin had done the usual rotation of sports. His enthusiasm for each would flare, then quickly fizzle. "I was so happy I didn't have to drive for soccer," she says. "Plus I wanted to make sure he really wanted it."
After two years of pestering, Detta enrolled Corbin at KD Studios. (In the '80s, Detta had her own brush with show business, playing a court reporter in the TV movie The Lenell Jeter Story, with Dabney Coleman.) After several stage productions, Corbin proved so promising that he started private sessions with an acting coach in Lewisville.
As a sixth-grader, Corbin attended McCullough Middle School, but his schoolwork was suffering. For seventh grade, the Coronas enrolled him in Spring Creek Academy in Plano for kids pursuing talents in sports, music or performing. Students go to class for two-and-a-half hours in five core subjects, then train the rest of the day. Detta and Corbin would drive to Plano at 11:30 a.m., then trek to Lewisville after school for acting lessons, sometimes getting home as late as 10 p.m.
Corbin's career was taking over the family's life. Was the dream of stardom Corbin's? Or was it the result of overachieving parents projecting their ambitions onto their son? And what about the consequences of a youngster finding success too soon? One need look only to the Dallas area's LeAnn Rimes for a sobering reality check, as the sweet, wholesome young country star turned into a bitter adult immersed in a lawsuit with her father, who had banked everything on her success.
Detta and Gary say they're different, that Corbin is the one pushing the dream, pulling them along behind him. At every escalation in his acting career, the Coronas say, they've sat down with Corbin to talk about possible consequences. What they're doing, they say, is no different from the mother who drives her hockey-playing son to the rink every day at 5 a.m. or the father who moves to another city so his child gymnast can train with a prestigious coach.
Yeah, some would say. They're all equally insane.
Why are his parents hell-bent on pursuing Corbin's dream? "We want him to have a contented, happy life," Gary says. "This is what Corbin wants his life to be. He's so passionate about this, to turn our backs would mean we weren't being good parents." Gary says they also plan to do whatever it takes for their other sons to achieve their goals. In college, Ben spent a semester at the University of Sydney. Next fall, he plans to enroll in a program to get a dual MBA and law degree. Adam is exploring veterinary medicine.
But show business is different. The rejection is more personal and success more arbitrary, based in large part on things no one can control: beauty, charisma, luck and proximity to power. To the Coronas, those things are simply obstacles to overcome.
In September 2001, a Dallas producer cast Corbin in a show to be called Cyberforce, a potential TV pilot about kid hackers who help police catch bad guys. The pilot went nowhere, but Corbin began a refrain: "I want to go to L.A."
His acting coach encouraged them to take Corbin, then 12, to the West Coast for pilot season, February through April, when casting directors audition actors for new TV shows. Not only was his acting improving, Corbin, it turns out, had one bankable skill that could make him stand out from the pack.
Corbin focuses with large blue eyes, oddly canted at the corners just like his mother's. Slowly, a bit of moisture appears, filling his eyes, then oozes out onto his long lashes. In moments, a tear forms and slowly slides down his freckled cheek.
Corbin can cry on demand.
This talent, such as it is, first appeared when Corbin prepared an emotional short monologue for auditions. He could end it with weeping every time. "When I first started to do the crying thing," Corbin says, "I'd think about my dog dying. Now I can do it whenever."
Waterworks-on-cue is a highly valued skill, especially for child actors who sometimes have difficulty with drama foreign to their life experience--the mom dies, the father runs out, the world as we know it is about to end.
Going to Los Angeles for two months so that Corbin could make the rounds of auditions was an expensive proposition. But they finally agreed. "People told us he was talented," Gary says. "We thought we should take him out there to give him a fair shake."
It was a big step. "I knew I'd have to give up stuff, like my parents did," Corbin says. "But I knew I could book business. Honestly."
In February 2002, Detta and Corbin moved into the Oakwood Apartments, a 1,150-unit complex in Burbank across the street from Warner Bros. and near the back lots of other studios. They leased a furnished unit for $2,300 a month and rented a car. Specifically set up for child actors pursuing stardom, the Oakwood is a little city of adorable youths, with gyms, pools, tennis courts, a mini-market, hair salon, theater and playgrounds for tots. Activities for various age groups are provided, as are "studio teachers," who work with residents for three hours a day. Most use curriculum provided by their local schools or homeschooling courses. The Oakwood also provides information on workshops, acting schools, photographers and talent agencies. Current and former residents include Hilary Duff, Frankie Muniz, Kirsten Dunst and on and on.
KD Studios had referred the Coronas to three agents who handle child actors. They talked to the first one. Corbin cried on demand. They visited the second, a dynamic agent named Mitchell Gossett who has ties to Dallas. Gossett has produced several plays at the Undermain Theatre and comes here several times a year looking for young actors. "Dallas has the best talent pool in the country outside New York and L.A.," Gossett says. Corbin immediately impressed Gossett. "It was clear that Corbin had some comic flair. For his age, he seemed poised and ready to pursue an acting career." Just as important: The Coronas were willing to invest a lot of time and effort into it.
Detta, trying to preserve their options, told Gossett they had one more agent to interview. But Corbin had made up his mind. "I don't want to go anywhere else," he told his mother. "I like Mitchell."
Next on the agenda: head shots, the calling card left with agents. Five hundred dollars later, they were ready.
For eight weeks, Corbin and Detta drove all over L.A. for two or three auditions a day. "They sent him on everything in his age range," Detta says. "At 12, he could go out for the 10-to-13 age parts. There's a ton of stuff for kids that age." Some days they didn't get home until 7 p.m. Then there were acting workshops.
Corbin began seeing the same actors going for the same parts. There were also times he saw mothers--child actors are almost never accompanied by fathers--yelling at their kids after a poor reading. "I felt bad for those kids and their lives," says Corbin, who says his parents just shrug if something goes wrong. "They're just doing it for me, not themselves."
During that first trip, Corbin didn't book any business, but Gossett got positive feedback on his client. The Coronas returned to Dallas after the pilot season and then flew back several times for callbacks. Each time, Corbin lost out to another actor.
Homesickness had set in after a few weeks in L.A. Corbin missed his friends and his dog. But as soon as they got back to Dallas, Corbin began campaigning to return in the summer to audition for film roles. In July, the Coronas realized they either had to fully commit or wait until he was older. They talked with Corbin to make sure he knew what he was giving up: time with friends and family. Traditional school experiences. His room at home.
Corbin insisted he wanted to return to L.A. Detta and Gary agreed that they would make a pull-out-the-stops commitment for two years. "But we told him," Gary says, "if you ever get tired of this, say the word. We'll be back in Dallas."
The Coronas moved back into the Oakwood in the summer of 2002. Instead of renting a car, they bought a Malibu. Corbin signed up for acting and comedy workshops. They hired an acting coach to prep him before each audition. The total cost: about $7,000 a month, or $84,000 a year. "It's taken over our lives," Detta says. "I used to play tennis five days a week. When I'm in Dallas, it's only because I have a job."
But this time Gary's life also changed dramatically. He and Detta began meeting in the Burbank airport, exchanging kisses and duties. "We'd leave the car at valet parking at the airport and leave the ticket number on voice mail," Gary says. "I'd fly in on the plane she'd fly out on."
"We were trying to provide two parental environments," Detta says. "We'd eat at the dinner table each night wherever we were." That was easier because Ben was in college and Adam spent his junior year at boarding school, courtesy of bad choices and like-minded friends, as Gary tells it.
Making the casting rounds, the Coronas realized they were unusual. Most child actors came out only for the pilot season. And most of the parents are divorced.
The decision to move back was validated when Corbin got cast in an independent comedy film called Ticklish, which he calls a "messed-up film about a messed-up family." He plays the main character during his 12- to 18-year-old phase, which apparently occurs sometime in the '70s.
"They put a mullet on my head," Corbin says. He made $500, though he'll receive more when the film, now in post-production, is released. (All his money goes into a "blocked trust account"; his parents fund all of his expenses out of their pockets and say they expect nothing in return.) And the shoot provided an inadvertent eye-opener to the weirdness that is Hollywood, when a tattooed Bridget the Midget, dressed for her topless scene, strolled across the set in full view of a startled mother and son.
Then came the best month of Corbin's life: October 2002, when he hit the actor's jackpot in both TV and film. But one triumph would make Corbin think about giving up on his dream for good.
Leno's producer called in September, during Gary's stint in L.A. The show had been looking for young stand-up comedians, and they liked a tape of Corbin performing a monologue at the Ha-Ha Comedy Club, which capped a comedy workshop with acting coach Trisha Simmons of LAKidsAct.
Simmons started running classes at the Oakwood, where she met Corbin. "From the beginning, Corbin stood out," Simmons says. "His timing, his joy for life. You can't teach that. It's a gift. And he has charisma. I have a lot of kids who are really good at stand-up. But they didn't get called."
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.
So Gary decided to finance a film project to co-star Corbin.
"My dad surprised me," Corbin says. "He's been doing it behind my back, and then he told me. I think it's awesome."
Well, that's not exactly what he told his father. "Corbin hears me on the cell phone in L.A. and says, 'Dad, you've only been here three months, and you've already gone Hollywood,'" Gary says. "But I think it can be a good investment."
Gary has found a comedy script, called "Double Wide," by Texas-based screenwriter Anne Rapp, and the film will be shot in Texas. He plans to raise $10 million to $15 million and produce it with Goodfriend.
The Coronas also have plans for Corbin behind the camera. In mid-December, Corbin signed on as executive producer of a low-budget sci-fi thriller to be shot in Dallas this month. "Corbin will be on the set, learning the other side of filmmaking," Gary says. "People say I should take Corbin through every step of the production process. That's where the actors with staying power are going."
How do you get to be executive producer? Money, baby. Gary agreed to raise about $100,000 to finance the project.
And this spring, Corbin will write, direct and act in his own short film, a drama that will be entered into film festivals like Sundance and the Austin Film Festival. "It shows he's not only an actor, but has other talents," Gary says. The price tag on that: $25,000.
Will it pay off? Gossett believes that 2004 is the year Corbin will make his name known. "I wouldn't be surprised if Corbin finds himself on a situation comedy," Gossett says. "The young stars today can come from TV like the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon. We look at those channels as film tracks, because they're creating a film audience for the rest of an actor's career. Hilary Duff can open a movie because of her TV show."
But he admits that young actors face big risks. "Because of the spotlight, the general trappings of the business, you can get your values mixed up," Gossett says. "Kids need extra help in understanding that. Unfortunately, the parents can get caught up in it, and the whole thing becomes a big mess, because it's dealing with ego."
Acting coach Simmons stresses to parents that they let their kids be kids. She learned it the hard way, as a child actor herself. "I missed my prom," she says. "I was always working. I missed my senior year in college. I didn't join the sorority." It seemed worth it because everyone told Simmons she was destined to be a big star. It never happened.
Detta and Gary say they're aware of the pitfalls and try to keep Corbin on an even keel. In a lot of ways, he's an ordinary teenager, riding his skateboard and razor scooter around the Oakwood complex, hanging out with his friends when he's back in Dallas every few months. He loves the online computer game Ultima. And he gets in trouble, usually for talking back.
"We continue to jerk his chain," Gary says, "to make him see he's a dependent of ours." Corbin recently got grounded for driving around after midnight with another 15-year-old neighbor in the boy's sister's BMW.
Corbin returns with his dad to Los Angeles later this month. He believes that in the next five years, his career will take off. If he goes to college, it'll probably be someplace like Pepperdine, where he can study...acting.
To get ready for stardom, Corbin's been shopping online for a getaway. He'd really like to buy his own island.