For a moment, John Corbett wasn't sure about this role.
In ABC's "A Smile as Big as the Moon," he was supposed to play Mike Kersjes, who was a Grand Rapids special-ed teacher and a coach. That's where the problem came.
"I didn't really like my high school football coach," Corbett said. "I thought of coaches as goons."
All of that dissolved when he met Kersjes. "He's gregarious," said Corbett, who shares that trait. "He likes a cocktail; he likes to laugh. He kind of looks like Dr. Phil."
And he has audacity, pushing for the elite U.S. Space Camp to accept his Forest Hills Northern High School class. "This was in 1988," Corbett said. "The camp was only six years old then and didn't have any special-ed programs."
Taking the role in this "Hallmark Hall of Fame" film was be a huge challenge for Corbett, who:
• Had never seen Space Camp. He does remember watching the moon landing when he was 8; much later, he met Buzz Aldrin, who described the last-minute crisis of being unable to find a landing site.
• Knew nothing about special-ed. "I'd never even met a kid with Down syndrome."
Now "Smile" put him with several actors who have Down syndrome, including Peter ten Brink, who plays Ben.
"Some of the best conversations in my life were with Peter .... He tells great jokes, he loves every country ," Corbett said. "He's learning the guitar; he calls Taylor Swift on the phone sometimes."
For Corbett, who is working on his second country album, these are admirable traits. He and ten Brink worked together, doing large chunks of the film at the real Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala.
The story - taking a class from suburban Grand Rapids to Alabama - seems like a stretch. Then again, many parts of Corbett's own life are just as unlikely.
Flash back, for instance, to when he was a teenager, in an apartment with his mother in Wheeling, W.Va. He was a good athlete — a center (6-foot-5, 200 pounds), a high-jumper and, despite disliking the coach, a football tight end. He also was a poor student (attention deficit problems) with no long-range plans. And at 18, he remembers staring in awe at the movie "10" and Bo Derek.
"I'd never seen anyone like that before," Corbett recalled. "I remember thinking, 'I wish I had a girlfriend as pretty as that.' "
Now he does. Corbett, 50, and Derek, 55, have been together for 10 years.
They live amid Northern California beauty, while he races off to acting jobs.
There were a lot of things in between, of course. There was Corbett traveling to California on a beanbag chair in the back of his friend's pickup ... Showing up there on the doorstep of his father, whom he'd only met a few times ... Getting a factory job until he hurt his back, and then going to community college, where he found an acting class ... And getting a huge break.
"I got lucky when I got 'Northern Exposure,'" Corbett said.
It was then a low-budget summer show and he was an unknown, but it lasted five seasons, with Corbett as Chris the disc jockey.
Other series kept piling up — "Lucky," "The Visitor," "United States of Tara," boyfriend duty in "Sex and the City" and in the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."
Corbett even has a sharp change-up in "Parenthood," playing an ex-husband who's an alcoholic rock-and-roller. "I can do the nice guy roles," he said, "but it's nice to do something different."
Still, the nice-guy stuff beckons, including two "Hall of Fame" films. In "November Christmas," he was an earnest dad; now he's a coach who isn't even remotely a goon.