Veteran actor and real-life cowboy Barry Corbin has shown his grit both on the screen and in his recent real-life battle with oral cancer.
"There was a spot in the inside of my cheek that didn't go away. It came back that it was cancer," Corbin, 82, tells PEOPLE in his trademark Texan drawl.
"I already knew what it was. I hadn't discussed it with anybody, but I knew," he says.
Yellowstone fans applauded his performance last season as no-nonsense Four Sixes Ranch cowboy Ross, and creator Taylor Sheridan signed up Corbin for his latest series, Tulsa King, starring Sylvester Stallone. Both premiere Nov. 13 on Paramount+. He's also in Martin Scorsese's 2023 film Killers of the Flower Moon, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro and Jesse Plemons.
With the two recent high-profile series appearances and a movie coming out, Corbin was on a roll and not looking to draw attention to his health issues. He figured he would be finished filming Tulsa King and then get his surgery done, but the filming got behind schedule and his team of doctors at John Peter Smith Hospital in Ft. Worth, Texas, believed the surgery could not be delayed any longer without risking severe complications.
Corbin casually asked for time off for a medical procedure but didn't mention it was for cancer surgery. The production company let him take two weeks off and he quickly returned to set.
"I didn't realize how much it would knock me out. I was sleeping 12 to 14 hours a day," Corbin admits. "It was a little difficult, but we got it done."
"They told me there was a possibility my vocal cords would be impacted and that would cause a big disruption in my business." Corbin says. He is probably best known for his distinctive voice in his Emmy-nominated role as Maurice in Northern Exposure, and the ill-fated deputy Roscoe in Lonesome Dove.
While most people are familiar with squamous cell carcinoma as a skin cancer, Corbin's Dr. Jonathan Jelmini says this is an entirely different beast." It's much more aggressive when it's involved in the mouth," says Jelmini. "And there are a lot of nerves that run through the tongue around where things need to be removed."
Corbin was prepared for the possibility the cancer may have progressed rapidly and surgeons might have had to take his jawbone out and replace it with a bone from his fibula. "Both my fibulas have been broken, so they're not in very good shape either, so that kinda worried me," Corbin says.
My big fear going into this wasn't his looks," his wife Jo Corbin tells PEOPLE. "But Barry makes his living off his face and his voice, the two things they told us might be the most affected."
Courtesy Barry Corbin
''He did have some fear that he would not look the same when he returned to work after the surgery. He says he put his trust in the make-up people to make him presentable," Jo says. "And if that wasn't possible, he thought he might be written off the show."
"They could have kept the scenes I was in and explained in the finale why I'm not there because I play a man with dementia," Corbin says.
"Barry definitely showed his grit post-operatively. He was ready to discharge from the hospital the morning after surgery," Jelmini says. "Every patient recovers a little differently, but he certainly had an accelerated recovery." Jelmini was also pragmatic about his future."Even with successful treatment, surgical treatment of this type of cancer, you're a patient for life."
For more on Barry Corbin's cancer, pick up a copy of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.