The Age of Reagan, in which we saw three conservative administrations in power, has ended. Do you think there will be any major change in policy with Clinton in office?
If I had stayed in politics, I would have been like him [Bill Clinton]. He has the ability to reconcile opposites. I'm happy that he has a real agenda to transform the United States. Whether he will be able to implement his agenda is another question. But I've already noted the NPR [National Public Radio] sniping at Clinton.
[Laughs] But conservative groups are always criticizing NPR for its supposedly "liberal bias."
Yeah, but NPR was never hard on Reagan, a guy who had to be shown cartoons in his cabinet briefings to understand the issues. I listened to the economic summit that Clinton organized. Clinton knew how to dot every "i" and cross every "t." He is a deep and educated guy, and the press is on him!
I heard some twit reporter last night talk about how it looks like Clinton will tax and spend. That reporter was using right-wing ideology in his analysis of Clinton's policies. Tax and spend! Nobody raised taxes higher than Reagan and Bush. Nobody! And it comes right from the middle class. Where does he spend it? On the Pentagon. When Clinton talks about tax and spend, he's talking about doing it for the people, not for the military industrial complex. In the face of the deficit the Republicans created, I can't see how they can stand up and open their mouths. I see Clinton as a person who is really trying to do something about the deficit problem.
Are there many actors in Hollywood who have political opinions like you and aren't afraid to express them?
Yes, there are a lot in Hollywood that talk like me. But there are people everywhere that talk like me. That is why the San Francisco Mime Troupe was so accepted during the sixties. People like to hear the straight goods. People know that this country is in a sorry state if NPR is the best we got. There is a lot of left-wing stuff out there. You can read The Nation, The Village Voice, Mother Jones.. I read them, but that doesn't mean those magazines are correct.
I've got to stress that I believe people should get the widest possible variety of political ideas, programs, and policies so that they can make intelligent decisions. But they don't, and that's no accident. The media belong to the people who pay for it, and nothing is going to show up in the media that is antithetical to their interests.
I remember reading an article back in the mid-eighties in which the author said you were a star on the rise. But you have never quite made it big in Hollywood. How do you explain that? Does your outspokenness have anything to with it?
There can be two possible answers For one, you can say it's a plot and that in the higher echelons of the studios, my name is on a blacklist. But I'll never know.
It could very well be. It happened during the McCarthy period. Your views aren't exactly mainstream.
Yes, blacklisting someone in Hollywood can be done a lot more skillfully these days. All someone has to say about me is, "You know, I heard Coyote is difficult to work with." I'm in trouble if that guy is a money man.
And what's the other possible explanation?
It could be that I've never been in a movie where my role was credited with making it work. That's what it really takes. Make somebody a lot of money, and you can work in Hollywood forever. There are guys out there and I don't want to name names - who can't tie their shoelaces and talk at the same time, but they were in a movie that made a lot of money, so they work again and again.
Would Sylvester Stallone be in that category?
You've got to remember he's smart. He made Rocky. He acted and directed in it, and it made him a mega, mega star. I may not like his politics, but the guy did it.
Do you think Hollywood makes enough movies about the issues facing society today?
I don't think movies have to always be about contemporary issues, but never? Give me the name of a film out today that is about a contemporary social issue. That strikes me as curious. I can't read most of the scripts I get today. You pick the best of what you are offered, and so far the best I've been offered comes from Europe. I've been on the cover of every big magazine in Europe. I'm a big movie star in Europe. There, I get to play real complicated and interesting roles. I don't have to play a moron.
Given your success in Europe as compared to the U.S., why haven't you moved to Europe to live and work?
I'm an American. I like Europe and I get to go there a lot, but my children are here in the U.S., and I don't want to be an expatriate.
Being out of work for fourteen months, don't you get a little nervous that, one time, you might be out too long?
Yes, of course, I get nervous. I get on the phone and yell at my agent.
[Laughs] What does he do?
It's not his fault. He puts my name up for lots and lots of movies, but for some reason Hollywood likes the guy who is hot at the moment. What I'm doing now is writing scripts that I want to direct and sending them to Hollywood. Right now, I'm trying to raise the money for one of my movie scripts.
Will you be changing careers?
I like to think I'm adding a parallel track. The demographics of the movie industry are like fourteen to thirty-five. I'm fifty-two.
There are lot of actors in your age group who have a hard time finding work, aren't there? I think Donald Sutherland is one of them.
Sutherland just got a role that I was up for. It was neck and neck. Donald's a wonderful actor. There are a lot of wonderful actors out there about whom one can ask: When was the last time I saw them in a movie? When was the last time you saw Elliot Gould in a movie?
I can't remember. When we don't see actors like Gould, we assume they have retired or are taking it easy. But you're saying that's not the case. Many are actually looking for work.
Yes, but no one is hiring them! Look at Marlon Brando. Look at Meryl Streep, who is one of our great, great actresses. Her movies don't make a lot of money, so she's not looked upon as a heavy hitter in Hollywood.
Do you have a lot of friends in Hollywood?
Yes, I do, and I have a good time there. My kids live here in Mill Valley, so that's why I live here Hollywood is fun, but it's not the Sodom and Gomorrah that a lot of people think it is. The problem for me is that it's a company town, and I have a lot more interests than just the film business.
One of the interesting things I read about you was your work in the ghetto in the late 1970s. You must have learned a lot about some of the real serious social problems facing America.
Those problems are something I know about. I grew up around black people and, as I said, I have been politicized all my life. But I did get this job with CETA [Comprehensive Education and Training Act], and I taught acting in the ghetto schools. That was exciting, challenging, and very interesting; but then Jerry Brown [governor of California] appointed me to the state's art council, and I had the opportunity to shape educational policy. I thought I made a real contribution.
What were some of the things you did in terms of shaping educational policy?
We pointed out to people that the artist is a creative problem solver who can combine logic and intuition to help solve problems in a culture. When we sent artists into the schools, we weren't trying to "sensitize" the students to make them a part of the future audience for opera, the symphony, or ballet. We were trying to teach students creative problem solving, which they could apply to whatever aspect of their life they wanted to.
You can be a doctor, a lawyer, a plumber without ever having to use your intuition. You can learn to do any of those jobs by the book, but you will never learn how to be the best of anything without using your intuition. A bunch of artists created a film on teenage pregnancy for the Department of Health and Human Services that won five Emmies. It was created by young people for young people. Kids would come up with ideas for projects, and our artists would help them. Vandalism in the schools went down. Absenteeism went down. Teacher morale went up.
We were able to say to the powers that be, "Look we are not taking your tax dollars way and giving them to artists to be artists. They are performing useful services in the schools."
We weren't trying to stop opera, but we were saying you can't have two classes of people. You can't have a class of artists who receive money for nothing because the ruling elite thinks it's important. You are taking that money away from working stiffs who work hard. We wanted to show that the artists can work for society so that a father might say, "Well, I don't really care about opera, but they are teaching my kids to sing. So I am getting something from my tax dollars." He's not going to object to spending money on culture.
I was good at what I did. We raised the budget from $1 million to $14 million. No one in California had ever looked at the artistic community as a reservoir for creative problem solving in the state, such as helping to solve problems of self-esteem and discipline. We were successful at it.
It seems to me that you were applying your Digger experience to the problems of the schools I see shades of radical theater and guerrilla theater...
And how to break down ideas and communicate them clearly and effectively and nonjudgmentally. Interestingly, I was supported by right-wing legislators after they realized I wasn't bullshitting. I didn't treat them like the enemy, and I didn't try to be ideological. We wouldn't lie to them. We admitted mistakes when we made them. I was the first person who went to the California state legislature who said, "You gave us $2 million to do this program last year, but it didn't work. But we learned A, B, and C from it, and if you give us that money again for the program, this time we know it will work."
They put a senator from San Diego on the arts council who had tried six times to abolish it. Within six months, he was my staunchest ally. He saw that we weren't bullshitting. We were playing fair and hard, and we were trying to make a difference. I remember one legislator - a real right-wing conservative - who was on the finance committee. He overruled his own legislative analysts nineteen out of twenty-two times to get us through the committee. Then he voted against me, for the record, to protect his political ass. But we already had our appropriation. When I left my last finance hearing, all the senators were wearing hippie headbands. [Laughs]
What did you learn about yourself? For one thing, it must have been a tremendous confidence booster to deal with all those powerful politicians.
That was when I decided to go into movies. I learned I could talk to anyone. If I told the truth, never lied, and admitted every mistake, little by little, people would begin to trust me and I could find common ground with anyone. The experience with the arts council gave me the confidence to think, "Well, gee, I've always been curious about the movies and wanted to know what the industry was like. Let me give it a shot."
That's interesting because you were older as far as pursuing a Hollywood career. You weren't a young man in his twenties with stars in his eyes.
Remember, for ten years I had been on the far left, involved in an anarchist radical group, in which we did everything anonymously and never took money. I had kind of denied myself opportunity when I was a young man. I didn't get my Screen Actors Guild card until I was forty.
Why didn't you stay in education?
Jerry Brown offered me the opportunity to run the Department of Education, a $2,000,000,000 agency. But you know, it would have taken up the next ten years of my life. I came to the conclusion that politics was an illusionary thing. On the other hand, I thought that, as an artist, I could inspire people and give them ideas they could use. I was not suited for politics. I hated the fact that I would have had to always compromise with power.
Yeah, that must have been tough for a sixties idealist.
Yeah, I didn't want to knuckle under. I couldn't take it. There are people that do it and do it well, and I respect them, but it's not for me
You must be a risk taker, though. Most people would have taken the safer road, especially when it offered a job with real power.
I don't consider myself a brave person. I have to push myself to do a lot of things. But I lust had a hunch about Hollywood, a feeling that I would get lucky and do okay.
But you must be brave because I understand that you are camera shy. You wanted to be an actor, but the most important thing for an actor to be able to do is stand before a camera.
I don't like being the center of attention. There are people who like to cut the ribbon at the boat show, but I'm not like that. I'd much rather be behind the scenes, an advisor to a politician rather than a politician himself. But acting was something I knew how to do. Besides, I was getting older and had to make some money.
Of course, E.T. was a movie that made you a familiar face. How did you get the role?
Steven Spielberg had seen me in the movie Southern Comfort and said this was the guy I want for the character Keys. I was hanging out with Steven at the time, and I told him, "I want to do the movie, but I don't want my character to be the bad guy." I didn't want my kids to grow up thinking science and adults were the enemy. Steven thought about it and agreed. He actually let me write that one scene in the hospital where I go to meet E.T.. I did five drafts of that scene, and it was polished up and made better.
Spielberg didn't take offense at your point of view? After all, he's the famous director, and you were the up-and-coming actor.
Steven is the best. Me makes his own movies. I've never worked for a kinder or more gentlemanly director, ever. He gave me complete access during the movie. I was hanging around his office, writing drafts, critiquing, and shooting my mouth off. I didn't have any idea that that was not how it was done I thought to myself, "Boy, this is fun. It's lust like hanging out with the guys. [Laughs] Everybody was great. I'm still a nobody, but then I was more of a nobody. I never have forgotten his generosity.
So he didn't mind your brashness?
I wasn't brash. I'm never brash. I was just being honestly inquisitive. But I've always been good at listening to people - taking their view into account. People like it when you hear what they have to say. I was having the time of my life. On the last night of the set, when we wrapped up shooting E.T., Steven grabbed me and said, "I want to do a movie with you that has lots and lots of words. I love to hear you speak." [Laughs] [Shouts] I'm still waiting, Steven!
[Laughs] Well, you waited ten months after appearing in E.T. before you got another role. Did that shock you?
That blew my mind. The kids [actors in E.T.] were going off to meet the Queen, and Dee Wallace was getting her own TV series. I was thinking of creating a publicity campaign that would have shown my career was the only one to have floundered because of E.T. I couldn't believe it! I had been in three movies that made a half-billion dollars between them [E.T., Outrageous Fortune, and Jagged Edge]. I was out of work for nine months after Outrageous Fortune and ten months after Jagged Edge. I never made another major movie since I made Outrageous Fortune in 1988.
People stop me on the street and say, "God, I love your acting ... blah, blah, blah." I don't know what it is. You got to ask a big studio executive what's going on.
You have been called "the thinking woman's sex symbol." Maybe the problem is that you come off as too intellectual on the screen.
Once upon a time, in the thirties and forties, enough people were going to the movies that you could make a movie like Bringing Up Baby or Front Page. Now you don't have that two and a half percent of two hundred million people or something like that to make a sophisticated movie. So there are no "B" movie stars today. In another era, I could have been a Robert Ryan, who worked all the time. But it doesn't bother me that I don't get the big films. It would be fun to make Terminator, but I'm not really interested. It does bother me, however, that I don't get the little, interesting films. That's the part of the equation I don't understand.
Given the frustration you must feel at the way your career has been going, do you ever get nostalgic for the sixties?
I get nostalgic for the absolute synchronicity that existed between my political beliefs and my way of life. I was able to live in such a way that what I did for a living exactly reflected my political beliefs. Exactly! That is gone now. Today, I'm much less carefree. I have kids, and I have to attach myself to other people. That means I have to compromise. I guess the alternative is to not grow older. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Is the counterculture experience now a piece of Americana, or are parts of it still around today?
I think there is a lot left. The counterculture helped create institutions that are everywhere today. You see it in the peace movement, the natural foods movement, the ecology movement. the women's movement, the civil rights movement... All these movements came to fruition in the sixties. Acupuncturists are everywhere. Food co-ops are everywhere. Organic food is everywhere. Better restaurants are everywhere. People are agitating for better child care, mass transit, and environmental concerns This legacy is much more enduring than political ideology. That is the way change is manifested - by the way people live, not lust by the way they talk. So I'm proud to be part and parcel of that.
Do you feel lucky to have lived during the sixties and experienced so much?
Yes, I really do. I feel bad for kids today that have to worry about AIDS precisely at the time they are supposed to be experimenting sexually and finding out who they are. Today, they have to worry about crack and getting killed in a random shooting. The stakes seem to be much higher now.
Critics of the counterculture might argue that the breakdowns we see in today's society are the result of forces unleashed in the sixties.
It's easy to say, but I didn't urge anyone to sell crack and make money from drugs. Crack didn't come out of the psychedelic revolution. The psychedelic revolution was spiritual and transcendental. Crack comes out of disenfranchisement, when every option has been taken away from a people.
I never urged the president of the U.S. to take away the regulations from the savings and loans industry and bankrupt the fucking nation. So they sent a couple of guys -[ Charles] Keating and [Michael] Milken - to jail as a symbol. Milken serves twenty-four months and gets out with $500 million. No one I ever knew in the sixties was gimmicking the stockmarket. You can have the George Wills and the William Safiresi and the other journalists who are the bagmen for the powers that be. They are bright men, but they are also like vacuum cleaner salesmen who say to you, "Buy my product, or you will die of dirt." I listen to free men and women who aren't beholden to anyone for their livelihood.
One final question - what about your future?
I want to keep working and to maintain my life so that it has some kind of integrity and thought to it. That's a tough job. My dad used to say to me, "Everybody has got to compromise, but a real man doesn't compromise more than he has to." So I will try to keep the compromises down.