Peter Coyote Talks About
Listening & Narrating 

by Marty Crisp from AudioFile magazine

October/November 1998 issue

Just call him "Zero Defect Guy." "That's what the [audiobook] engineers have labeled me," confesses actor/writer/narrator Peter Coyote. "I can do an hour-long documentary voice-over in an hour and 15 minutes.

The same is true, Coyote says, when it comes to reading audiobooks. He's read some very high profile titles for BDD Audio, including Gary Paulsen's Newbery Honor Book, Hatchet, Paulsen's The River; Forrest Carter's The Education of Little Tree, and Nicholas Evans's bestselling The Horse Whisperer.

He's also read some far less mainstream stuff for Audio Literature Presents, including new translations of The Book of Job and Genesis, and several treatises on his beloved Zen Buddhist religion, including Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, and Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.

Coyote's phenomenal success in the voice-over field, which has translated into the labor of love of reading audiobooks, may be sort of a Zen thing. It's nothing he planned. It's simply the outgrowth of an enlightened mind with an intuitive connection to the written word. Although Coyote describes his audiobooks sideline as "not particularly remunerative, compared to movies and commercials," he tries to do at least one audiobook a year, simply to encourage the love of reading he holds in such passionate regard. Although he dropped out of a Master of Fine Arts program just short of a degree, Coyote pursues his never-ended education through audiobooks, specifically lectures from the Great Minds series. "I listen every day in my car," Coyote says. "They have professors from universities like Harvard and Dartmouth and Princeton. I'm working my way through philosophy right now. With audiobooks and lectures so readily available today, we don't have to waste time anymore."

Ironically. Coyote's youunger years were thoroughly steeped in that "time-wasting" free-love. flower power, hippie commune cauldron of the 1960's, a subject he chronicled in his own first book, Sleeping Where I Fall, released this year by Counterpoint Press. "That's the book I'd most like to do as an audiohook right now." Coyote admits. "My own book! But, as with the other books, it depends if somebody hires me to do it."

"I grew tip listening to radio voices,'' Coyote continues. "Which might be why I'm such a great believer that the voice energizes, while most television stultifies the imagination. I listened to Gene Autry, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. The Shadow, and Sky King when I was a kid. The audiobook goes back to that kind of storytelling, in which it all boils down to 'my voice to your ear.' There's no intervening medium."

But what is it about Coyote's voice that has put him in the top rank of commercial voice-over pros, having served in the past as unseen spokesman for such diverse companies as General Motors, Acura, Mazda, Mutual of New York, Tylenol and Chiquita Banana?

"l'd like to assume that people trust that I'm not lying," Coyote explains simply.

Only such fellow voice pros as Martin Sheen, Donald Sutherland and James Earl Jones have throat power that commands the same respect - and the same fees - Coyote pulls down for commercials and for prestigious documentaries like National Geographic's recent Storm of the Century; the twelve-and-a-half-hour PBS mini-series The West, produced by Ken Burns; and Time/Life's History of Rock & Roll.

Perhaps listeners are drawn to the clear sense of authority in Coyote's narration - be it script or book. Or it could be the sense of surprise he's always careful to maintain.

"I have an uncanny ability that I can't really explain. I get the voice of the author very quickly. I always read audiobooks cold. Within the first paragraph, I sort of get the guy's rhythm and his voice, so I just know when a sentence is going to taper off and when it isn't. I really am the fastest around. I like it to be fresh for me because if I surprise myself as I'm reading, I can transmit that surprise to the reader. Something about doing it that way keeps it really honest and fresh. I like to be the kind of actor who goes on stage and works things out in front of the audience, instead of having it all planned. I like that kind of high-wire act."

Coyote, the father of a 28-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son, started his own high-wire act as part of a San Francisco mime troupe called The Diggers. "Not pantomime," he asserts quickly. "We were never the white-faced guys you see on street corners. We were more like sixteenth-century commedia dell'arte players - very bawdy, very loud. Coyote went on to play supporting roles in some well-known movies (Michael Crichton's Sphere, Steven Spielherg's E.T., the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings bio, Cross Creek), and to star in some lesser-known cult favorites (Heartbreakers), as well as TV shows like his Emmy-nominated performance in the Disney Channel series Avonlea.

But his fortune, then and now, lies in his voice. "It's the thing most people recognize about me," he says with a laugh. "I'll go in somewhere asking for change, and people at the counter will turn around and say. 'Omigod, I know that voice.'"

For more about Peter Coyote, check out his award-winning web site at or hear him starring in The Toxic Donut by Terry Bisson at the Seeing Ear Theatre at the science fiction web site, Dominion,

Coyote with his beloved truck

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[Marty Crisp is a staff writer for the Lancaster (PA) Sunday News and a longtime fan of Peter Coyote's voice.]

[ The Peter Coyote Official Web Site ]