NOT RUNNING WITH THE PACK

by Jennifer Raiser

Nob Hill Gazette - November 2006


Actor, activist, author, musician, singer-songwriter Peter Coyote is one of the Bay Areaís favorite luminaries, a charter member of the ďI could live in Hollywood but choose not toĒ club that also includes Sean Penn, Danny Glover and Robin Williams. Coyote was born Robert Peter Cohon in Pennsylvania in 1942, and migrated west to pursue a Masterís Degree in Creative Writing from SFSU in 1965.

In San Francisco, he became involved with the SF Mime Troupe, which performed radical political street theater. During the Summer of Love in the í60s, he became a co-founder of The Diggers, an anarchistic group that supplied free food, housing, medical care and music (by Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead) to many of the cityís homeless.

It was during this time that he adopted the name Coyote. His candid memoir of that time, Sleeping Where I Fall, is now in its seventh printing, with a chapter from the book winning the Pushcart Prize for Excellence in Nonfiction. He also wrote, directed and performed in a play, Olive Pits, which won an Obie award.

From 1975 to 1983, Coyote became a member and later chair of the California State Arts Council, which provides public funding for arts projects. He shifted from stage to film acting in the late 1970s, and achieved recognition for his leading roles in ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, and Jagged Edge. His work to date includes 90 films, as well as featured roles in many television series. Heís provided voice-over narrations for over 120 documentaries and 16 audiobooks.

A practicing Buddhist, Coyote lives in Marin County with his attractive wife, Stefanie Coyote, executive director of the SF Film Commission. Heís the father of a grown daughter and college-age son. We spoke to the actor by phone just as he returned to the Bay Area at the end of the summer.

Jennifer Raiser: Weíre glad to catch you at home. Where have you been this summer?

Peter Coyote: I just got back from fishing with my son at Henryís Fork of the Snake River in Idaho. My son and I are ďtechnical fly fishermen.Ē We watch the fish feeding, and pick a specific fish that we want. Then we study the hatch, the insects that the fish are eating; we match our fly to the hatch, and then go after this one fish. You have to present your fly exactly for it to take ó you can go four hours or more to get a particular fish. And then you release it. Itís the Ph.D. of fly fishing.

How can you tell youíve caught the right fish?

They make a certain sipping sound at the surface. The fish on Henryís fork are extremely educated; theyíve been fished a lot, so theyíre not easy to fool.

So what did you catch?

We caught rainbow, brown, cutthroat. Weíve been doing this every year since he was six. I was a half-time parent; the first year I had him for a month in the summer, and thought, ďWhat am I going to do with a six-year-old?Ē So we lived outside for a month and roughed it. Now that heís in college, we can get in eight or nine days fishing every year.

Do you always fish the same river?

The last several years weíve gone back to Henryís Fork Lodge; itís really upscale. Weíre fed really well and have excellent guides, and itís not roughing it at all. Itís run by Nelson & Patsy Ishiyama, both extremely devoted fly fisherpeople.

Do you get to spend time with your daughter, too?

My daughter is married, and delivered my first grandchild this January, a girl. Being a grandfather is fabulous. I didnít know how Iíd feel about being a grandfather, but when I heard the news I got this warm honeyed feeling in my stomach.

When will you start taking her fishing?

Itís probably better that she starts walking first! But yes, as soon as sheís ready, Iíll take her. Iíve noticed that women tend to fly fish in a way thatís distinct from men, a way that I prefer. They work the graceful fly rod with a form I admire. They understand that catching is only part of the experience of being on the river, of appreciating the scenery, of the whole continuum.

Youíve just finished filming in Canada. Did you get to fly fish up there?

No, when Iím working, Iím pretty much committed to just work. I was filming Resurrecting the Champ with Samuel L. Jackson and Josh Hartnett. Itís written and directed by Rod Lurie. I got to do a real character cameo. I play an old, crippled-up Jewish fight promoter. Itís very, very different from what people are used to seeing me do, and I love that.

What other work have you been doing?

Well, Iíve been doing a cable television show called "The 4400" ó itís a high I.Q. science fiction show on the USA Channel. I was also doing "Commander-in-Chief" with Geena Davis playing the first woman president. ABC fired Rod Lurie, who created it; the new guy they hired drove it off the air in 15 weeks. The way they let it go was really sad. So right now Iím at liberty and looking for a TV series. Itís kinda nice to show up at the same place every day, and the income is more dependable. Iíd like to use a series to stash away a little bit of getaway money.

Where do you want to get away?

(Laughs) I havenít figured that out yet. Itís harder to get away now that Stef is so busy on the Film Commission. This is the first time weíre not able to travel together whenever we want.

I know youíre passionate about this area. Why do you live here instead of Hollywood?

Well, I love the weather; I love the fog, the chill, the coolness, the moisture. Second, I love the Bay Area because of its small size. The small-town feeling makes it very easy for artistic people of all kinds to bump into each other. Itís no accident that Pixar got created here; all Steve Jobs has to do to speak to George Lucas is pick up the phone. And I love that itís a writersí town. It has a history of thought and communication, of wit and humor. Itís a real city thatís defined by geographic outlines, with the Bay on one side, the ocean on other. Itís got a comprehensible outline, whereas L.A. does not; it sprawls from city to city to city. I get tired of discussing the film biz when Iím in L.A. I want to scream, ďAnybody out there reading a book?Ē

When do you have time to read?

I read on location all the time; I buy books like candy. Iíll read four or five books during the course of a movie. I do it as a way of keeping my energy in between takes, so Iím not telling jokes and stories. Itís a way I retreat.

What books are you reading right now?

I just finished Greg Palastís new book. Itís called "Armed Madhouse: Whoís Afraid of Osama Wolf." Heís an American reporter who writes for The Guardian in Britain. He seems to come into contact with purloined documents that people mysteriously drop on his desk. And I just read a book by Antonia Juhasz, a brilliant woman, called "The Bush Agenda: Invading the World one Economy at a Time". Itís a very disturbing book about how the U.S. military is being put at the disposal of Americaís multinational corporations. What the hell is the other book that Iím reading? Iíve a mind like a stainless steel colanderÖ. Oh, here it is, "Imperial San Francisco" by Gray Brechin. Itís a great story of water grabs, land grabs, corporate and political alliances in San Franciscoís history.

Those sound pretty serious. Are you reading anything for fun?

Well, for fiction, I just finished reading "A Fine Balance" by Rohinton Mistry. Itís kind of a big, sprawling Dickensian novel about India; very moving. I seem to be on a kick for reading third world literature.

Letís talk about your own writing. Your book laid it all out: the drugs, the communes, the activism, the liaisons... .

Iím comfortable with everything I said in that book, in fact very proud of it. Itís being used in a number of university courses in 1960ís studies. I donít pretend itís a universal document of anyone elseís experience. The more personal the document, the more accessible it is to others. Iím amazed that itís still in print. Itís sold around 50,000 copies so far. Thatís much more than people expected. Most books sell around 3,000 copies.

Youíve got a lot going on. How do you divide your time?

Divide? Oh golly; depending on how hungry I am, I may take whatever comes in the door. In the last two or three years, most of my work has been for TV. Itís not unhappy because some of the best writers are gravitating toward TV. Now youíve got The Sopranos, West Wing, Deadwood, Weeds, Six Feet Under, The WireÖall great.

Have you written anything for TV?

I sold a pilot for TV that didnít get made, as most of them donít. I work with Silvia Peto ó a brilliant writer in Seattle. Weíve had more than our fair share of interest, but things didnít go our way on that one. Iím working on a screenplay, a fictional rendering of my book. Iíve written eight screenplays, but they havenít been made into films yet. Iíve also written a lot of political essays for blogs; Iím a writer who makes his living as an actor; I like that I donít have to write for money, I can write what I want.

You became a movie icon later than most leading men. Any advice for aspiring actors?

The film business is a young manís game. Most stars are in their early 20s. I was extremely lucky to get leading roles in my late 30s and 40s, but in short order, I was out of the demographic. They say you get three shots at leading man. If your films arenít making money, youíre relegated into the pool of character actors. Iím not at all bitter. At least I got my shots. I gave my youth to something else. Thatís the long and short of it. What I took away from myself from the perspective of acting, I gained in experience. I might add that the situationís a little different in Europe where I seem to have a lot more prestige and importance. The body of work Iíve done is respected; Iíve been on the cover of just about every magazine in Europe. I speak French and Spanish; I like being there. Iím like a dog ó I go where Iím petted and fed. Last year I did two films, "Le Grand Role" and "Bon Voyage", in French. When my son graduates from college, Iíll probably sell my big house in Marin and get a smaller one here and a small place over there.

Whereís ďover thereĒ?

Probably Paris, where I love the cultural life. My office is the Cafť de Flore; I go every day between 11 and 1 when Iím in town. The word gets out, so people stop by to see me. My other favorite hangout is Allard, a very old-fashioned French restaurant.

What are your favorite hangouts closer to home?

My all-time favorite restaurant anywhere is Chez Panisse. Alice (Waters) has raised the bar high for everyone. Iím a long-timer at the Hayes Street Grill in the City, and we go to JardiniŤre after the Symphony. I like the Slanted Door; I like Yank Sing on the corner of Broadway and Stockton: it looks like a dive but itís great. And the Ocean restaurant way out on Geary. Iím in the city two or three times a week. And then thereís Frantoio and De Angeloís in Mill Valley, and Sushi Ran in Sausalito.

Do you get special treatment because youíre well known?

(Laughs) I donít cause a ripple. Sure, Iíll see people do a double take or whispering, but most people leave me alone. Iím not at the age where women are signing their underwear and sighing.

Do you listen to music?

I listen to music all the time, but I canít listen to music with words when I write, so I have a lot of classical music. I was just with Dmitry Sitkovetsky, a violinist and conductor whoís played with the SF Symphony. He gave me two CDs of his father, Julian Sitkovetsky, playing Bach partitas and Mozart and Tartini.Iíve got four daysí worth of music on my iPod. Iím a big bebop fan, also into bluegrass. I like people who write and sing their own music as opposed to big pop stuff. I likeÖhere Iím opening up my iPod.Ö Iím a huge Dylan fan; then you know Dylanís heir as singer-songwriter is Springsteen. Tina and Molly OíBrien are two great singer-songwriters from the folk world. Iím also a big gospel fan. I love Jessie Winchester, thereís a blast from the past, and James McMurtry, whoís Ira Mcmurtryís son. Sleepy John Estes is one of my favorite blues singers. And I listen to Diana Krall, Cassandra Wilson, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Ray Charles ó I donít know how many Ray Charles albums Iíve got.

Youíve done over 70 voiceovers, mostly for environmental and political nonprofits. Why?

Itís my form of income redistribution; I take money from commercial voice-over jobs, then I do dozens and dozens of pro bono documentaries that are never going to pay me. I can do several a week. Sometimes Iíll make a deal; Iíll do it free, then if it gets sold, you can pay my fee. My name can help some nonprofits get credibility with potential funders.

Your voice is so resonant; some people say youíre ďthe new Henry Fonda.Ē

Thereís never going to be a new Henry Fonda. He was a unique and fabulous actor; Iím flattered that people compare my voice to his. And besides, heís got children whom I know and respect who definitely donít want to hear me called the new Henry Fonda.

Your website says your ďgreatest addictionĒ is fixing your 1964 Dodge Power Wagon that youíve owned for three decades. Is that what you drive?

Hey, life changes. I sold it on the morning of my daughterís wedding. Howís that for a Freudian event? Now I drive a motorcycle every day, and I have a Prius for foul weather. When that lease is up, Iím buying a Volkswagen and will run it on biodiesel.

What are you blogging about right now?

Iím very involved with politics. The two issues Iím most concerned with are the integrity of the vote and getting corporate money out of the election cycle. For voting machine integrity I work with a group called Voter Action, started by a bright businesswoman named Holly Jacobson. Itís fueled by local lawyer Lowell Finley whom I met during the 1996 Democratic Convention. We sued the Registrar of New Mexico over fraudulent actions in 2004, so the governor accepted our case and banned voting machines. Weíve got local lawsuits in 14 other states. Look, if you canít trust the integrity of the vote, you donít have a democracy. And if you donít have trust, the country never coalesces behind the winner. There have been serious suspicions of fraud in both of our past two presidential elections. The country has never healed, which is why we have these really corrosive red state and blue divides.

What about corporate political contributions?

You need wealthy corporations to have a wealthy country. Iím not against corporations in general, but most corporations have so much money and power, and one simple unconflicted goal to maximize returns for shareholders. Now you have a situation where the corporate sector wants to have a say in the political sector. No politician can get elected without corporate money, so no Democrat or Republican can speak to issues that corporations donít like, such as higher wages, consumer safety, federal electionsÖ.  Until the taxpayers pay for elections and we prohibit corporate fundraising, weíre in the thrall of these corporations to make our public policy. And until our public airwaves are turned over to public debates during election seasons, we wonít have an informed electorate. With our current system, Iím watching my country turn into the richest, most powerful third world country on the planet.

 

[ The Official Peter Coyote Web Site ]