It was like a door opening. Sudden full-flight, psychedelic trajectory. He walked out in the night and the sky seemed etched. Everything was just beautiful and for ten hours, he ran through the cornfields of Iowa, all night long, leaving these funny little footprints behind him - coyote tracks.
Finding a Pure Place to Stand
By Malcolm MacKinnon
High Times, October 1994 issue
"I feel like an assassin!"
I'm watching Peter Coyote go to war. Ants have set up housekeeping in the deck outside his house, They like to burrow into the warm redwood planks that encircle his hot tub. It's one of the actor's few extravagances, and he uses it daily to ease the chronic pain of shoulder and knee injuries incurred from past movie roles.
Coyote is resolute about protecting his hot tub. He sloshes water out of the tub onto the hundreds of ants, who are now panicked and scurrying every which way.
"God, I hate this! I tried to reach an agreement with these guys, but they just don't listen!" The killing continues. "T'm really sorry, guys."
He has made an agreement with the neighborhood raccoons who visit nightly. He feeds them dry dog chow if they stay out of the garbage cans. So far, that deal is working out.
Not so for the ants who have now been evicted and drowned. The deck is soaked and I'm standing by, a little amused, not sure what to say, so I offer, "Women must love these little habits of yours."
"They think I'm out of my mind."
Peter Coyote is hardly out of his mind, but he is relentless in his pursuit of clarity. Ask him something and his blue eyes fix on the interrogator measuring the dimensions of the question, When his answer comes, it flows effortlessly, in complete sentences with punctuation. He is absolutely at ease with himself and not given to second-guessing his instincts which have been honed in arenas ranging from Haight-Ashbury to Hollywood.
In Hollywood, where everything must he packaged, he's known as an "intelligent" actor, a commodity that is apparently in short enough supply there that the capacity to think can actually become a point of marketability.
Despite a resume of 40 films, his name can still draw blanks until you list his credits - Bitter Moon, Jagged Edge, Outrageous Fortune, E.T.-then the light goes on: "Oh, yeah. That guy!" He's always memorable, but remains outside the inner circle of bankable actors and confesses to "struggling for the good parts like everyone else." Here in the United States, he's often relegated to supporting roles like the sympathetic alien-chaser in E.T. or the slick DA with an agenda in Jagged Edge.
In Europe, it's a different story. Peter Coyote is a bona fide star, the first choice of the best directors from Roman Polanski to Pedro Almodovar, and recognized wherever he goes. He has been on the the cover of nearly every major magazine in Europe and models Nino Cerruti menswear. He also holds the distinction of being only the fourth male ever to appear on the cover of Elle magazine in Paris.
You may not know it, but that pliant, seductive voice you often hear extolling the wonders of Chiouita bananas, Mazdas and Tylenol is his, as well the same voice you've probably heard in the countless messages he willingly volunteers to do for "practically any environmental cause or Native American rights issue that comes along."
He is 52 years old but, to be sure, there is infinitely more to him than show business credits.
He didn't even enter the movie business until the age of 40. From 1975 to 1983, he served on the California State Arts Council under then-governor Jerry Brown, radicalizing the traditional concept of arts endowment in the state and forging sizable budget increases despite the ravages of enforced tax cuts wrought by Proposition 13. He served as the board's chairman from 1976 to 1978.
Earlier this year, his writing earned him the prestigious Pushcart Prize (Joh Updike, Saul Bellow and Raymond Carver are among past recipients) for "Carla's Story", one of the chapters in his upcoming memoir, The Freefall Chronicles (Sleeping Where I Fall). That book, he says, "will be a hard, but fair appraisal of the ~ pursuit of absolute freedom," something Peter Coyote knows a little bit about.
In The Haight-Ashbury, the definitive history of the San Francisco '60s scene, Charles Perry refers to him as a "tall, verbal ex-folkie" who joined up with the taboo-busting San Francisco Mime Troupe, an avant-garde theater group with a taste for radical politics, who laid the groundwork for the legendary Diggers. The Diggers were architects of the Haight-Ashbury experience, and Coyote was one of the originals.
Unlike many of the players from the '60s, his eyes don't glaze over with nostalgia when discussing old times. He speaks affectionately about people and events, but those years and the unbridled pursuit of self-liberation that characterized them have passed on. So have many of his cohorts.
He thinks often of the cost of that era, the price that had to be paid. "What 'free' means to most people," he explains, "is 'free without limits.' That's what America's been founded on, the notion of limitless opportunity Free enterprise-business without limits. What's happening now in America-and it happened back in the Haight-is we're running smack into the ecological fundament of interdependence. The last decade of the 20th century is the collision between the psyche of America-grounded in absolute, limitless freedom-and the planetary truth of interdependence, and it's a cataclysmic upheaval."
He actually talks like this. His thoughts are uncluttered, and the precision with which he dissects a concept is downright frightening. Debate him and you'll wither.
We spent a couple of days in and around his modest home tucked away in the Marin County hills just north of San Francisco. A small sign is taped to his front door that reads, "DIGGERS WELCOME." Coyote icons line his shelves, and many of the paintings and photos hanging on his walls feature coyotes, as well.
At one point during our conversation, it struck me, "Looking over the last thirty years, don't you say to yourself sometimes, 'Jeez, I've had a helluva life!'?"
His blue eyes fixed on me again, and he quietly replied, "I say, 'Not fucking yet.'"
Morris Cohon was a great guy in an emergency but impossible to live with on a daily basis. Coyote says there was simply no room in the house for two males. He remembers enduring daily sessions of what he calls "debilitating abuse" under the guise of wrestling lessons from his father, an "Olympic-caliber" wrestler. The official explanation was: "Come on, son, this is something you and I can do together. I'm gonna teach you how to fight!" But the real subtext was: "This is what will happen to you if you ever try to stand up to me."
He was a gregarious man, larger than life and able to talk to anybody with astounding ease. When Morris met his future wife, Ruth Fidler, she was a model - slim, young and gorgeous - and in a real hurry to get out of the Bronx. She fell in love with this tough, smart guy and, ultimately, under his spell. Coyote remembers feeling resentment over her inability to protect him from his father, but Morris had pretty much colonized her life.
Though it was less than a happy adolescence, Coyote fondly recalls the countless musicians his father invited into the house. Morris Cohon was an avid jazz-lover and, frequently, the Cohon home became the site for impromptu jazz sessions. Watching the behoppers play, laugh and get high, 10-year-old Peter made up his mind to seek the alternative direction.
He moved on to Grinnell College in Iowa where he says he "blossomed" and met his life's closest friends. Terry Bisson, a prize-winning science-fiction author and classmate at Grinnell, remembers those times. "It was 1960 and we were all a bunch of long-hairs, some of the first. We were consciously, deliberately, provocatively, aggressively weird."
"Peter was always a bit of a star, the leader-a little taller, a little better-looking, a better musician, a little more talented than everyone else-always a charismatic guy, the one who stood out in a crowd."
They were writers, getting where they wanted to be through books, reading Huxley and various articles on psychedelics. One college afternoon, Coyote, Bisson and other members of the group drove to the Tema, IA Indian reservation.
"Peter had tracked down some peyote," Bisson explains. "Back in the old days, you could get it through the mail but, again, this was Peter's idea, and he'd organized a little trip instead."
That night they cut up and ate the fresh, green buds. For an hour and a half, nothing happened. They were getting ready to call it a day when, without warning, the peyote took hold.
He has never doubted the sense of transformation he remembers. The coyote tracks he witnessed leaving in place of his own footprints while dogtrotting through corn-fields-the nonhuman, predator-like sensations surging through him-were undeniably real.
He recalls thinking about the experience and the notion of changing his name for a long time. "I was in a funny position because I really had no elders or instructors. When I finally made the decision in 1967, it was right at the beginning of the American Indian Movement-AIM-and people were suspicious of my motives. Many Indian people thought that I was either trying to be Indian or taking the name of their Creator, or whatever. I had to pay a lot of dues, but I felt deeply that my vision had been a message from the universe-a gift-and I felt compelled to acknowledge it. I had to finally just stand up and say, 'Hey, this is my name!"'
His name now is no longer an issue. "I've been Coyote longer than I've been anyone else." he says. A medicine bundle of arrows wrapped in a coyote skin and eagle feathers lies on a mantelpiece in his living room as if to emphasize the connection he feels to his name. They are gifts from the Alcatraz Indians, presented to him following their occupation of the former federal penitentiary in the San Francisco Bay back in 1969. Coyote and the Diggers vigorously aided and supported them during the takeover and feted the tribe with a monstrous peace and friendship dance following their departure.
He had entered San Francisco State in 1963 to attain a master's degree in creative writing, but was soon sidetracked by theater. In the past, actors had always seemed vain and
selfish to him but soon he began viewing theater as a public dialog about issues that matter in front of an audience.
He joined the Actor's Workshop, but quickly became disillusioned. "I was an amateur photographer, and I'd blown up about eighty prints and mounted them in the
lobby. The idea had come from a local radical company called the Encore Theater. They had tripped out the lobby with blow-ups of reviews and photos and created this impression of high energy and can-do spirit. After our first big opening, nobody said, 'Boo' to me, not even a thank you. I said, 'Fuck this. I'm in the wrong place.' I went down to the Mime Troupe and took to it like a duck to water."
The San Francisco Mime Troupe was the hippest thing around, the toast of the radical left, and pushed the performers as far as they could go. For Coyote, it was a crash course in acting. The troupe loaded members with responsibility and in just six months, 22-year-old Coyote was directing the national Minstrel Tour. The rigors of the show were exhilarating, but ultimately exhausting. Eventually, he joined ranks with the Diggers and Emmett Grogan and Peter Berg, who had grown bored with the Mime Troupe and were setting the Haight ablaze with street theater.
Hippies and flower children may have been the media darlings, but the Diggers set the tone for the times. They had named themselves for a band of 17th century free-thinkers in England who believed in the universal right of man to cultivate wastelands and common lands without paying tariffs to owners of the manors they adjoined. They had come to be known as Diggers because they dug and planted on those lands. Later they were rousted by vigilantes.
"WE STROVE TO BE AUTHENTIC, BECAUSE WHO WOULD WANT TO LIVE IN A WORLD THAT DIDN'T ACCEPT YOUR AUTHENTIC SELP."
In the introduction to Ringolevio, Grogan's autobiography, Coyote wrote of the San Francisco Diggers: "They knew what was wrong with the culture and believed if they created enough examples of 'free life' by actually acting them out in the streets, without the safety net of a stage, then people would have alternatives to society's skimpy menu of choices."
The Diggers were responsible for setting up free-food programs and free medical clinics and gleefully proclaimed the death of money. They were anarchic and not hierarchic, creating psychedelic havoc and performing social magic, jarring people out of tired sensibilities and encouraging them to assume freedom and ignore all law and custom. They were convinced they could liberate people from "the cultural propaganda machinery" with mighty hits to the imagination.
As the '60s pass further into history, the emblematic end to the era is often debated. Some point to the Manson murders, others to the Altamont rock-concert murder or the killings at Kent State. For Peter Coyote, it was a case of serum hepatitis.
Coyote talks about the cost of absolute freedom. "We strove to be authentic, because who would want to live in a world that wouldn't accept your authentic self? Authority seemed intent on making you change-to be correct, to be within the limits of 'human.' We wanted to expand those limits so you could be who you were, with all your contradictions.
"The difficulty was this: If you were going to act out the world you imagined, and live it, make it real by living it and act as if the revolution was over and you had won-continually goading your imagination-you were also continually falling back on what you would accept as a premise, which is actually bourgeois conditioning. You were in a conditional, psychological free-fall where you were examining everything, breaking it apart and seeing how it recombined. One of the ways you broke everything apart was with drugs. And one of the things we didn't understand was that there are limits that must be attended to."
He contracted hepatitis shooting heroin and speed. Horribly sick and unable to walk, he spent 5 weeks bedridden on the Diggers' commune in Olema, CA, mostly alone except for a litter of coyote puppies. He'd watch these healthy, shiny creatures getting stronger and more vital each day and think to himsel( "Yeah, we're all a bunch of geniuses, but we're all destroying ourselves."
His bout with hepatitis left his liver damaged. Today, he vigilantly maintains habits that ensure his health and immerses himself in Zen Buddhism, which he has practiced now for 20 years.
He admits to "looking for wisdom in many places." He has spent considerable time with native tribes, but he says, "In the final analysis, none of these Indian people are under any obligation to reveal their transcendental secrets.
"But since I feel transcendental experience is a pan-species phenomenon, at a certain point I felt I had to just say, 'This is going to be my path, where I stop looking around.' Otherwise, you just float around the surface. You go through Zen practice in much the same way as any other spiritual discipline."
As for the drugs that fueled the creative energy of the '60s, he says, "Drugs served their purpose. With LSD, people spent a lot of time in preparing a good location, making sure that it would be a spiritual trip. It wasn't like dropping a bunch of acid and going out to the mall like kids do today, but we also used them in a lot of ways which were not always ritual, not always careful."
"Look, I am not against their use. Every culture uses something to get 'off the hook.' But drugs are an uncharted realm-and powerful. Responsibility is paramount, and it's often missing."
When he undertook a film career at the age of 40, there were better-looking, established actors who already had the additional advantage of actually living in LA (He has always preferred living in the San Francisco area.) He had to come up with something to get him noticed, and his strategy was to act as if he was already a star.
"I thought it through like a character piece and imagined how Paul Newman would act if he were interviewed. I wouldn't have to charm anybody. I'd walk in and calmly say, 'Well, this is an interesting script. What's your take on it?' Although these guys actually thought of me as a nobody, I'd solicit their ideas and they'd begin seeing a calm, collected type of guy with a bit of charisma.
"Sometimes I'd simply make up a story: 'I met this big, tough guy on the way over here...' and I'd act this whole, contrived story out. I also always allow people to follow the sound of my voice. This powerful character I developed got me away from the deadly train of thought of being judged-that these people will determine whether or not I'm an actor."
A Peter Coyote film performance often invokes the quiet honesty Henry Fonda projected-intensity with an economy of technique, languorous rhythms opposed by kinetic intelligence. With his long, aquiline features and 6'3" frame, he could probably play Abe Lincoln to a T. But he has played flawed characters as well-an arrogant film star in A Man in Love, an emotionally abusive American expatriate in Bitter Moon, released earlier this year, and most recently, a shadowy serial killer in Kika.
For director Roman Polanski, Coyote was the ideal actor to play the part of Oscar in Bitter Moon, released earlier this year. "I needed an intellectual, a guy who can think, a polyglot," says Polanski. "Peter is all of that and an exceptionally easy actor to work with. Intellect can stand in the way sometimes, but I find the best actors are the intelligent ones."
The film depicts the extremes of human relationships, both physical and psychological, and explores areas of sexuality and obsession not normally visited on the big screen. Coyote placed all his trust in Polanski's direction.
He worried about the myopia of the American audience and casting community when the film debuted. Emmanuelle Seigner played his counterpart in the film, a performance so naturalistic that many critics didn't know what to make of her. Coyote calls her screen presence "absolutely feral." It was a film that did not allow the actors to play it safe, and Coyote calls it the best role of his career. Generally, reviews have been split; critics either loved it or loathed it.
In Kika, his experience was not so pleasant. "I learned Spanish for the film and worked with Spanish coaches every single day on the set, and in between scenes. Pedro Almodovar, the director, wanted me to speak in this rapid-fire cadence, which I couldn't possibly do. Instead, I developed a character who was sleepier and slower which would justify the speed at which I could speak Spanish. But Pedro was very cruel about it and got me very nervous and flustered. Everyone else thought I was fantastic-the other actors, the producer-but in the end, Pedro dubbed me, which was unforgivable." Spanish critics excoriated Almodovar for it.
He's also acted in some clinkers, like The Legend of Billie Jean, which he calls "a manipulative piece of shit." He hated filming it from day one, but his wife was eight and a half months pregnant and he was broke.
"My highest morality is taking care of my children." He has a daughter in her 20s (born in the Haight among the Diggers) and a young son from a previous marriage. "I've violated my personal esthetics plenty of times, but never my personal integrity. If I'm doing a commercial for Chiquita bananas, am I supporting the exploitation of Latin America? I say, 'No, not anymore than if I eat a banana.' If I find something I really can't live with, I don't do it."
He also admits, "Acting is not my greatest gift. I wish I was a genius as an actor because it's my livelihood. I love it, and I like to do it, or I wouldn't. I don't think it's easy. People like Gene Hackman or DeNiro invest the totality of their existence in it. They're artists. I just don't have that kind of talent."
What Coyote does have is "absolute confidence in his ability as a writer and communicator." Clearly, he's at his best when he's allowed the opportunity to contribute and - articulate his visions. Mter the heady days of Haight-Ashbury, Coyote hooked up with state-run inner-city teaching programs and was eventually appointed to the California State Arts Council.
"We realized that there's an essential problem when you commandeer people's tax money," he recalls. "We decided to run the Arts Council as if it were a work of art. Normally, a council creates a series of grants and people fall all over themselves trying to conform. What we created was a cultural dialogue in each and every county of California. Is it better for every county to have a symphony hall or is it better to put all the money into one or two world-class symphonies and have them tour, thereby saving the money for good music teachers who will teach local people how to play? We engendered these questions and forced people to think."
When he finished his work with the council, Governor Brown asked him to head the State Department of Education, a $2 billion agency, but Coyote declined, citing his preference for being the pressure group rather than the one making compromises.
It is not necessity of compromise in politics that bothers him, however. It is the outright dismissal of the left and the elitist "keep them happy and stupid" approach to governing he despises.
"We are the only country in the world without a left-wing party or a left-wing press, and it's no accident. Not that I think the left is any more reliable than the right, but it is part of the spectrum of ideas and, goddammit, people should be able to hear them all in order to pick and choose. The news media presents the centrist position as if it's the left-where you arrive after you objectively filter all the bias from the left and right, and it's all bullshit!"
"I happen to share the assertion that the public feuding between the Democrats and Republicans is a smokescreen; that behind the scenes they're taking the same money from the same people and are basically in collusion. The S & L scam was not manipulated by one party. It couldn't have happened without mutual cooperation. Both parties are minions of the oligarchy in this country.
"When we need an avuncular grandpa, they give us Reagan. When he got too stupid and autistic, they gave this elegant patrician-type in George Bush. And when he got too mean-spirited and nasty, they give us a young, hopeful Bill Clinton. But they're the same guys.
"Everything I've heard from the American media is either information, misinformation or error, and I don't have the criteria to distinguish. I live my life like an espionage agent, putting together webs of probability. I know that Kim II Sung and Saddam Hussein didn't just wake up one morning psychotic and say, 'How can I fuck up the world?'"
"What I do know is that the news is always serving to get me alarmed, to make me feel things are worse someplace else, that I should feel lucky to be living here. It offers me the option to have an opinion about something I can do nothing about. And I'm getting off that train. I don't want to have opinions about shit I can't do anything about. It wastes my time, keeps me agitated and deflects my attention from things I can actually affect."
It's late in the evening and we're sitting at the kitchen table eating some sort of vegetarian casserole he's concocted. The tape recorder has been shut off and, at this point, we're just two guys talking about our kids.
He missed his son terribly while filming Kika and Bitter Moon in Europe when their relationship was reduced to telephone calls. He saw him only two months out of an entire calendar year.
Again, cost crosses his mind, the limits that must be addressed He speaks frequently in Zen terms - "finding a pure place to stand."
Then he shifts gears completely. He points to a shelf where a coyote skull lies and smiles. "Grinning reminders. There's something cozy to me about skulls. They're all smiling under the surface flesh, where all the worry and stuff goes. I wrote a song once which had a verse in it: "If you weep/it's only skin deep/because every skeleton wears a grin/your bones are begging you to give in."
Which would explain his self-written, one-line biography: "Peter Coyote came from nowhere and is working his way back."