Published February 5, 1987
By Bruce Cook, Orlando Sentinel

Peter Coyote is more than a familiar face in movies today. He's a lurking presence, a charismatic and somewhat mysterious character.

''Right now,'' Coyote said, ''I'm at a point when I get A roles in B movies and B roles in A movies.''

Well, maybe, but that depends on what you mean by B movies. True, Heartbreakers, Stranger's Kiss and the upcoming A Man in Love are not big- budget efforts like E.T. Jagged Edge and the current Outrageous Fortune. (all his credits). But his performances in those bargain-basement features have given him the good reputation he enjoys in the industry.

His Heartbreakers role has kept him working as an actor, and it helped bring him his part in Outrageous Fortune. Outrageous Fortune is playing in Central Florida theaters.

There were things he liked about playing the heavy in this big Bette Midler-Shelley Long comedy - and things he didn't. On the plus side: ''Well, I like doing comedy. I'm a great Shelley Long fan - she's a very precise comedian. And Bette Midler, well, she's a real trouper. She was pregnant during the production. Her father died. But she never missed a call, never even missed a line.''

On the minus side? ''Bette was supposed to hit me over the head in one scene, and she did it too well. It broke a bone in my eye socket. And out on the desert, it wasn't so pleasant. The role was physically demanding but, uh, nothing too intellectual about it.''

But Coyote takes such difficulties with equanimity. Even when his daughter tells him he's not handsome enough to be a movie star, he doesn't mind. He's a serious student of Zen Buddhism and has found it helps in dealing with life's little problems.

There are some things he will talk about quite freely and some things he will talk about only a little. For instance, that name of his. Coyote? ''Well, it's my real name but not my born name,'' he said with a sigh. (He's been over this so many times before.) ''It was given to me because the characteristics of the animal, positive and negative, seem to fit me pretty well. I think it's a good name for an actor.''

He grew up in Pennsylvania, went West and wound up in the creative-writing program at San Francisco State University. At about the same time he joined the avant-garde San Francisco Mime Troupe while it was evolving its guerrilla theater style.

The troupe took its street concepts out on a tour of The Minstrel Show, with Dick Gregory, which Coyote directed. They played it across the country and finished up in New York in 1967, where the show won the off-Broadway theater award, the Obie. That was when he dropped out.

He will tell you he went ''on the road.'' But he spent a lot of the time, from 1967 to 1975, in San Francisco as one of the original Diggers. During those years this association was the heart and soul of the hippie community in Haight-Ashbury. The Diggers helped a lot of kids, but in the course of helping others, Coyote found he had some problems, too. Zen helped him get straight with them.

''The Diggers, some of them, are still out there,'' he said. ''You know, this year marks the 20th anniversary of that big summer there the Summer of Love. It was a big experience, that time as a Digger. A lot of my friends died, including the writer Emmett Grogan, and a lot of us found strange ways to survive.''

None stranger than Coyote's. He went from being a Digger back to the theater, and then on to the California Council for the Arts as an appointee of then-governor Jerry Brown. He rose to chairman, and by the time he bowed out of cultural politics, he had new respect for the nature and uses of power. ''But I'd come to understand that culture precedes law and politics. It's the source of greatest power. If you inspire people, you can control lives, while the best that government can do is coerce.''

This kind of thinking led him into films. It has taken him 10 years to get where he is in the movie business.

He just finished a film with French director Diane Kurys (Entre Nous) titled A Man in Love, in which he co-stars with Claudia Cardinale and Jamie Lee Curtis. He plays an American actor playing the Italian novelist Cesare Pavese in a movie. And although it was no picnic -- it was ''tri-lingual'' and Kurys was a tough director for him to work with. Nevertheless, it should help his career considerably.

And there is a good chance he will be directing his first film this year. If financing is in place, he will begin filming New Orleans Mardi Gras scenes in March. Will he act in the film? ''No, I think acting is a job that requires 100 percent, and directing is too.''

Personally he's in good shape, too. Married, with two children, he and his family live part of the year in Mill Valley and part of the year in London. But he hasn't lost touch with himself, nor is he likely to.

''I've never lost the sense of devotion to the universe I had as a kid,'' he said. ''I've felt my basic intention was always to wake people up to this majestic planet, wake them up and appreciate it.''

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