by Dave Richards

Erie Times-News, April 8, 2007

If the turbulent, drug-hazed counterculture days of the late 1960s and early 1970s confuse yet fascinate you, Peter Coyote understands. He experienced them as a founder of the Diggers, a radical, idealistic street group in San Francisco during the height of the hippie movement and thereafter.

Coyote later became a successful, recognizable actor, appearing in "E.T.," "Erin Brockovich" and dozens of films, plus TV shows such as "The 4400" and, currently, "Brothers and Sisters." Yet that earlier era gnawed at him, left him unsettled.

That's why he wrote "Sleeping Where I Fall," a memoir first published in 1998, which dives into his past in an unblemished, ruthlessly honest way.

"They were really chaotic, kind of maelstrom years," said Coyote, who'll read from his book and answer questions at Mercyhurst College's Literary Festival on Thursday.

"My life has changed a lot, but I didn't feel like I had sold out any of my values. I wasn't looking at my life like I was a wild-and-crazy kid and now I've grown up. But I had changed, gotten older, had children, and taken on responsibilities pursuant to that. So I wanted to make sense of that whole episode - it was 12 years - and to integrate it into my current life."

The Diggers, named for a 17th-century English group that opposed private property, created a new type of community where people lived together and supported each other. They started free medical clinics, gave away food and even sponsored free rock concerts in Golden Gate Park by the Grateful Dead and others.

"Our conscious task was to create a counterculture, to try to create an alternate place that stood as an example of all the failings of the majority culture," Coyote said. "What was really radical was we cut through the whole idea of money and private property. We urged people to do things out of authentic motivation, to forget about money."

Ultimately, though, he found that the communal lifestyle didn't work.

"As children got older, they demanded things that a totally free and anarchistic lifestyle couldn't provide," Coyote said. "If you're getting up at 5 a.m. to nurse kids, you can't really have wino Eddie playing tom-tom and smoking a joint downstairs.

"We brought a lot of our problems and hang-ups into that new world. Though we were trying radical new forms, like open marriage or sharing everything as communal property, we didn't have very good or well-developed vocabularies of interpersonal relationships.

"We were trying to be our own heroes. A hero is not supposed to be jealous, or supposed to care the sink is filthy with grease, so no one feels like washing it. Those internal tensions and jealousies made communal living fall apart."

In the book, Coyote is forthright about using heroin, how it affected his health and how many friends he lost to drugs. Yet, though he acknowledges the failings of the 1960s, he believes they created lasting, important changes, citing organic-food groceries, alternative spiritual practices, progressive political groups and a strong environmental movement.

"We didn't end racism, we didn't end imperialism, we didn't turn democratic capitalism into a kinder, generous, more inclusive system. But the cultural contributions changed the country in very good and still present ways," he said. "I think some things are so integrated into the culture, people don't really notice them."

Today, he's a name actor, yet he says basically the same person, just wiser, more seasoned.

"I don't feel like my values have changed at all. I've never taken a film that really offended my ethical standards or political standards. I've mutilated my aesthetic standards, but I'm just a migrant laborer," Coyote said with a laugh, noting he's never made even close to $1 million for a film.

"To me, it's not what the movie's about that's so important, it's the way I make the movie. I never lose my temper, I'm patient, I treat everyone the same way, from the star to lowest guy on the set.

"I try to be kind to everyone. I've been a Buddhist for 32 years."

Writing "Sleeping Where I Fall" served its purpose.

"I found the book and the interviews I did pursuant to writing the book were really helpful, and I was somehow able to kind of put [that time] to rest in a good way," Coyote said.

"It still oscillates through my life. But I'm not tempted to run off, take a lot of  dope and behave self-destructively anymore."

[ The Official Peter Coyote Web Site ]