April 25, 2016
by Jonathan Kiefer
Peter Coyote Is and Isnít Retired
"I hope that Iím able to
stop working as an actor,"
Peter Coyote told me once. "I
had a good run. It was good to me. But Iím not
really a good actor, not in the first rank. Iím not
This was about a year and three Coyote IMDb credits
ago, which brings him up to 150 for acting. He
continued: "I was good
enough to have a good career, start at forty and get
my kids through school debt-free, and meet some
wonderful people and have some great adventures. But
much of what I had to do was just aesthetically so
demeaning, and intellectually so demeaning. Finally,
I thought: Iím not getting back on a plane to do
Revenge of the Zombies 4 in Romania. Iím just not. I'll
stay home and write a book."
So we donít really know where Coyote is at,
retirement-from-acting-wise, but we have a pretty
good idea that his George Gund III Craft of Cinema
Award from the San Francisco International Film
Festival is not for diplomacy. Officially itís for
"outstanding and unique
contributions to the art of cinema,"
which in Coyote's case
could just mean seeing with an unwavering gaze
through all the bullshit.
At seventy-four, the former well-born New York
Jewish kid, bohemian wayfarer, self-administrator of
a shamanic 1960s name change, alumnus of the San
Francisco Diggers and the San Francisco Mime Troupe
(not to mention films by Almodůvar, Polanski,
Soderbergh, Spielberg), one-time California Arts
Council chairman, ordained Zen priest and bracingly
reliable narrator of Ken Burns documentaries
certainly has been around.
The book Coyote stayed home to write was his fine
memoir The Rainmanís Third Cure: An Irregular
Education, released last year and following up on
1998's Sleeping Where I
Fall, his personal chronicle of the American
counterculture. ďI canít think of anything cheesier
than an actor writing two memoirs,Ē he said, and
laughed. In person and in his books, you can sense
Coyote working out an equilibrium between
self-possession and self-deprecation. This balancing
act seems less like a stunt than simple poise,
surely the product of life experience and Zen
I met Coyote last spring at his then-transitory
abode: one modest unit in a Marin County apartment
complex, externally distinguishable from its
neighbors only by a casually magnificent display of
potted flowers, and the pristine 1952 Dodge Power
Wagonólicense plate "ZENWOLF"óparked
in a carport below. (The press release about
Coyoteís award concludes by disclosing that he
considers this truck to be his least harmful
addiction.) Unfussy living room decor combined
books, DVDs, the accouterments of untold Native
American ceremonies and a somehow not at all morbid
smattering of critter skulls.
"In acting, I donít even
approach the realm of my heroes,"
he went on, citing a wonderfully unpredictable
roster off the top of his head: Marion Cotillard,
Dustin Hoffman, "Ralph
Richardson, the most mysterious English actor,"
and Gary Cooper, whom Coyote considers quite
underrated. "And of course
Meryl Streep. Iíd watch her read the Yellow Pages.
So intelligent. She does what the Europeans do: she
creates a character to serve the script. One of the
things that really bothered me about American
culture is that Strasberg and the Actors Studio kind
of liberated the actor from the script. And you get
the feeling that they were serving their own
instrument, as opposed to serving the script. So
when I look at British actors, itís really
refreshing because they create these wonderful
characters that are designed to help the author tell
After fixing us some tea, Coyote eyed my notebook
and inquired with a fan's
interest about what kind it was.
"I never go out without a notebook,"
he said fondly. One thing Coyote likes to do when in
possession of notebooks is fill them with quotations
from beloved books. The novels of James Salter are
liberally excerpted, and presumably so is Tolstoy's
Anna Karenina, which Coyote says he loves and has
read at least six times. "Itís
a kind of moral clarity. Itís an ability to look
into human behavior and see nuances and details that
would evade me." Coyote's
film-appreciation proclivities also imply literary
foundations. He called himself "a
huge Kurosawa fan," and
singled out the uncommon favorite Dersu Uzala, for
being "a film about the
kind of man civilization produces, as opposed to the
kind of man nature produces."
Cheesy memoir twofer notwithstanding, this may be
the first and last author ever to have a book
blurbed by both Samuel L. Jackson and Rebecca
Solnit. '"Spiritual path'
is too pallid a term for Peter Coyote's
odyssey," observes the
latter, herself a highly discerning practitioner of
nonfiction odysseys. Jackson's
blurb meanwhile attests to the worldly full-of-life
feeling Coyote exudes, and encourages, even just
when hanging out over lunch.
All of which is good to keep in mind as context for
critique. "At the end of
every year I get movies from the Academy,"
he said. "I looked at four
or five foreign films, and they were all about
fundamental, life-and-death, moral, political and
social issues. And I looked at the majority of the
films that I got from my own culture, American
films, and they're
basically about some variation of boy meets girl. It's
not like we have less talent. Itís not like we're
less intelligent, but weíre so buffeted by fat and
wealth and indulgence and ego-centric
considerations, that we can no longer sink. We can't
go below the surface."
He also would tell you that he wasnít exactly part
of the solution there. Does robust humility count as
an outstanding and unique contribution to the art of
cinema? Yes, although when Peter Coyote talks about
hoping he can stop acting, I for one donít want to
"I loved the rehearsal
process," he said, not
with any trace of ruefulness, but not in the present
tense either. "And I loved
the collaboration with other actors and a director,
solving problems." Then he
was quiet for a moment, sipping his tea.
"And I love the kind of
natural chaos of movie sets. Like, there's
eighty people on the set, and these people have to
collaborate to make something happen."
Ah, how slyly that tense had shifted; now suddenly
we weren't in the past
anymore, and in fact we could even see a future.
Coyote Web Site ]