BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.–An English teacher in West Virginia and an acting coach in Los Angeles have something in common: Both influenced the career of actor John Corbett.
Corbett, co-star of the hit “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” was talking with a group of religion journalists recently in Beverly Hills to promote his upcoming movie, “Raise Your Voice,” in which he plays a charismatic music teacher who mentors Hilary Duff’s character.
When asked if he had any teachers or mentors who influenced him, Corbett mentioned two names: Lou Volpe and Howard Fine. He remembers both of them—and they both remember him.
Corbett, now 43, grew up in Wheeling, W. Va., where he attended Central Catholic High School. His senior year English teacher was Lou Volpe.
“I had the typical ADD that every third kid’s got today, and I couldn’t concentrate,” Corbett recalled. Corbett described himself as a poor student who was disruptive.
“I’d draw and make dumb jokes,” he said. “And Lou let me be myself, and he was just really a great guy. He was sort of a Robin Williams-‘Dead Poets Society’ kind of teacher. Just inspiring.”
EthicsDaily.com caught up with Volpe via e-mail. He still teaches English at Central Catholic.
“John sat in the first seat in the second row,” Volpe recalled. “I still remember him with his long legs slouched in his chair.” Corbett stands 6’5″—even without the black cowboy hat he sported during his meeting with journalists.
“He was not wealthy by any means, and he could have gone down the road of some of his friends,” Volpe said. “Yet he remained gentle and unassuming, with a sixth sense about getting too deeply into trouble. I admire him for his gentleness, humility, and kindness—and his remembering some of us back at Central Catholic.”
Corbett’s journey out of Wheeling took him to California, where he settled in Los Angeles to make a go of acting. He enrolled in acting classes with renowned acting coach Howard Fine.
The class required each student, however, to get up and perform a scene each week. Corbett said he developed stage fright, in a sense, and realized he couldn’t do scenes.
“I was going to quit the class,” Corbett said. When he told Fine of his plans, Corbett recalled Fine saying, “You can just come to class and sit in the back, and you don’t have to get up.” Fine didn’t charge him for the classes, either.
“I sat in the back for two years and didn’t do a scene,” Corbett said, adding that if Fine hadn’t shown some grace, he doubts he would have made it as an actor.
Fine now heads up the Howard Fine Acting Studio in Hollywood, where his list of past and current students reads like a who’s who in Tinseltown: Brad Pitt, Val Kilmer, Salma Hayek, to name a few.
Fine spoke with EthicsDaily.com by phone about Corbett. Fine said he remembers that conversation about Corbett’s fear of performing.
“I knew he was really gifted, and he just needed a break,” Fine said. “Really sensitive people are shy.”
Volpe also described Corbett as “a sensitive young man.”
“As for my role in John’s life,” Volpe said, “I believe it was very small. I like students and encourage them to read and write well. I often fail in this, but I still try to acknowledge them and welcome them in the time they have with me in the classroom.”
“John and I have not seen each other for a number of years,” he added, “but the last time we talked, religion and spirituality were important to him, the Hollywood scene was not.”
Corbett now spends most of his time in the Seattle area when he’s not on location or pursuing another love: singing. He’s currently recording an album for Nashville’s Broken Bow label.
Nevertheless, he frequently refers actors to Fine, who said his relationship with Corbett demonstrates that what goes around comes around.
“You do nice things, it comes back to you,” Fine said. Fine, who just finished a term as president of his synagogue, added that he tries to follow the Golden Rule and “approach people with kindness” because it’s the right thing to do.
Corbett himself seems to spend a lot of time thinking about what’s right. When one of the religion journalists asked him about his own faith journey, he was eager to respond—if dismayed with what he sees.
“It’s tough, man,” said Corbett. “TV preachers are bringing me down.”
“Me and the Lord are on good terms,” he said, adding that he doesn’t go to church. “I haven’t found a church I like to go to. Church bums me out too. I just read the Bible and pray.”
But whether it’s music or movies, Corbett carries the influence of Volpe and Fine, who see molding students as a privilege.
Volpe characterized his interaction with students thusly: “Most of all, I hope by my example that I have gotten them excited about God and their journey—both tragic and comic—into God and God’s love.”
Whereas some people think Hollywood asks folks to abandon that journey, Fine doesn’t see it that way.
“You don’t need to lose your value system to succeed in Hollywood at all,” Fine said. “In fact, it’s having a sense of yourself that’s going to help you.”
“I’m very proud of John,” Fine added, “and am glad to have been a part of his work.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.