PETER COYOTE:  A Legendary Actor in America is Becoming an International Star

[City Magazine International by Gallic Morgue]

Accustomed to leading roles in small American cult films, the sex symbol of the intellectuals, as he is defined, will see his fan club enlarging thanks to Diane Kurys


A strange phenomena of the American cinema is that the beautiful people of the hippie generation are on the rise. After Sam Shepard, the cowboy and Dennis Hopper, the outlaw, the Hollywood lights direct their beams on Peter Coyote, the seductor.  He has the charisma.  He has the physique.  He has the presence.  Celebrated by the female public as the "sex symbol of the intellectuals," at 44 years old, Peter Coyote's has come from of a long and wild crossing of the desert.  At the Cannes Film Festival, this man still has the silhouette of a teenager, hard but vulnerable features, and is charming with his soft wrinkles and his mellow voice.  Peter Coyote lives with his wife, son and daughter in their house in Mill Valley, close to San Francisco away from the turbulence of Hollywood.  With his international rise, Peter Coyote tells his American history. 

"My biography holds the line: I came from nowhere and I'm working my way back. "I grew up in the Eastern United States - New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas.  I was regularly expelled from all schools!  At 16 years old, I left my family to go to Mexico.  I had some problems there with smuggling marijuana so I did a little prison (laugh)... Let us say that for the most of ten years I lived like a vagrant.  I traveled while sleeping in a truck with $1000 to $2000 per year!  I wanted to rediscover the world and look at it with innocence like a beginner.  In refusing to attend school and any concept of work and money, I believed myself free.  I understood I had a too-protective middle-class education in adolescence.  It was significant that I test my own talent.  I needed to feel equal to others by facing the same challenges.  I lived through much experimenting, some a little stupid.  It was the only means of knowing who I was."

In 1965, Peter Coyote went to San Francisco and joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe.  It was the beginning of a friendship with Dick Gregory and his Minstrel Show.  He left with the troupe to be a success on the street.  One played everywhere - in the restaurants, in the parks.  It was a formidable year of an apprenticeship, very complete in body expression, in the improvisation of plays and the writing of roles.  After a tour in "L'Aimant Militaire," a sulfurous lampoon against the Vietnam War, Peter Coyote joined the Diggers in the Haight founded by Peter Berg and Emmett Grogan.  This anarchistic troop preached the death of  money with free distribution of care, food and clothing. 

"One played voluntarily.  We wanted to use theater as a way to show the public its attachment to property and money... This period also generated many things.  Drugs, for example.  We took too much of some, some for too long a time. Many of my friends died or became insane. We were at the edge of the precipice. One danced and one laughed at the face of death. The majority of my friends were extremely brilliant, but the marginal communities always attract the best and the worst."

After winning an Obie Award in 1967, Peter Coyote spent a prolonged period as a hippie traveling nearly ten years around the country making feather earrings and other leather goods.  It was during this time that he changed his name from Cohon to Coyote.

In 1975, Peter Coyote returned to theater in San Francisco. He was in Paul Sills' Story Theater and then he joined the prolific troop at the Magic Theater.  He was cast in The Red Snake by Michael McClure, Autobiography of a Pearl Diver and Charles the Irrelevant by Martin Epstein. 

Jerry Brown, then Governor of California, named him head of the California Council of the Arts.  Peter obtained an increase in the budget of 13 million dollars, radically transforming the foundation for art in the State of California. "I developed a design of decentralization in supporting the black and Mexican minorities.  I realized that culture is a form that is capable of being much more powerful than a political one.  Only an artist has the capacity to really change things."

Then Peter starred as Austin in the world premiere of Sam Shepard's play, True West.  "I finally acknowledged my desire to be an actor, which my left-wing political position had prohibited me to do up to that point.  It was like having a woman in my body.  My female interior is the artist.  By listening to the artist, my female interior took life again."

In 1983, Peter Coyote was completely determined in his choice to become an actor and give up the political responsibilities to enter the jungle of  the movie business. "Life is paradoxical!  If I want to live without paradox, I must die...  To be pure, to be without the conflicts and perversions is impossible.  The purity is an ideology.  I have been a long-time follower of Zen.  I have lived in a monastery.  To keep the will for purity is the best thing that one can do."

After his film debut in the comedy, Die Laughing, Peter Coyote appeared in a series of films - Tell Me a Riddle, Southern Comfort, Cross Creek, Timerider, Stranger's Kiss... However, there were also long months of anxiety in front of a quiet telephone.  Steven Spielberg offered him a chance to become known to the public with the role of the scientist Keys in E.T.   Spielberg had noticed him in Southern Comfort.  "During the time of E.T., I was very content because I made another film at the same time, and I was going to finally have enough money!  I could support my children.  It was not an enthralling role but everyone saw the film.  I was playing B roles in A films and A roles in B films!  I am grateful to Bobby Roth who entrusted me to play the beautiful role of Blue in Heartbreakers when I was not 'bankable'"

Director Richard Marquand described Coyote's role as an "elegant snake" in his film, Jagged Edge, a pyschothriller with Jeff Bridges and Glenn Close. With Director Diane Kurys' A Man in Love, presented in the Official Selection at the 40th Cannes Film Festival, he finally gains the attention of the European public.   Will the film enjoy the same success at the American box office?  Peter Coyote says he was delighted to play the double roles of Steve Elliot, a cinema star, and Cesare Pavese, the celebrated Italian poet.  At the beginning of the film, Steve is a well-known actor, an intriguing and mysterious star.  He meets Jane (Greta Scacchi), who desires him beyond the medium of the cinema.  But she has her dignity and refuses to remain only his mistress.   It is more than a simple story of seduction.   Steve is struck by Jane's courage.  Jane asks, "Do you think you can love more than one person at the same time?  Steve responds, "Yes" to which Jane says, "If you love more than one person at the same time, you betray both."   Steve responds," If you love only one person, you betray yourself." Thus, their relationship is a dance between them, a variation around solitude. 

There is a parallel between Steve and Pavese.   They both have a great desire to communicate and express their vision of the world.   To identify with Pavese, Peter studied Italian during the two months of filming.   The other parallel with Pavese is that his history of love is useful to Steve's personal life. Peter had to approach each of these characters differently - Elliot is a star at the zenith of his success and Cesare Pavese is pondering suicide.   "When I play Pavese, I have to try to be a man who does not want to die.   He wants to live, but he can't.  His ideas are so high that he cannot reach them.  There is a kind of pride in suicide.  My character has an extreme need.   He must live life where he accepts no compromise.  He is tortured and at a certain moment, the weight of his anguish makes his life meaningless.  I have interpreted Pavese like a man in love with perfection.  He does not want to commit suicide but can't live with imperfections."

Peter Coyote says he's disturbed by the way American films are being made for the teenage public and by the intellectual and emotional level of American culture.  He doesn't hide his desire to prolong his flirtation with the European cinema.   "Diane Kurys is a very brilliant woman.  When one doesn't agree, one fights with passion. It is proof that we like what we do.  When I read the script, I felt it was an adult point of view, mature, not only French, but especially human.  In the United States, men are threatened by women who attempt to compete with men, instead of playing on their own territory.  In France there is a new understanding between the sexes.  Men and women are different, but aren't necessarily confrontational.  A woman can be feminine, often showing more sensitivity to feelings."

Arthur Hiller's film, Outrageous Fortune with Bette Midler and Shelley Long has given Peter Coyote a chance to work in comedy.  He also remains interested in teaching at Robert Redford's Sundance Institute in Utah. It is within this workshop that he has written a screenplay called Heaven Before I Die which he hopes to direct.

"I would love to work with Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes.  There are two kinds of mentality.  One director may think it is their role to tell the actor what to do. Then the actor functions only according to the director.  The other kind of director, like Scorsese or Cassavetes, explains the meaning of the scene and then says 'Show it to me.'  I can do it 60 different ways.  Scorsese and Cassavetes know that is what an actor needs.  They allow "space" so that one can try to go very far in the character.  To just say to an actor 'cry!" is not a solution.   An actor is not a machine, but one who can do something unexpected and that is the magic!  I know that Marty and John saw my films.  I have always expressed my desire to work with them in the future.  Now, I am ready!"

[Note: This article has been "loosely" translated from its original French version and may contain omissions]

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"Cross Creek"






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"Jagged Edge"






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"Man in Love"






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"Man in Love"






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"Man in Love"






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"Outrageous Fortune"


[ The Official Peter Coyote Web Site ]