MARIN INDEPENDENT JOURNAL -
Actor Peter Coyote’s second memoir honors the
mentors who helped shape him
A child grows up with a critical domineering father
and fragile mother, rejects the family’s wealth and
power, turns to drugs to heal the inner wounds,
achieves fame and fortune, and hits the nadir during
a midlife divorce.
It’s a familiar story, one that can end any number
of ways, including tragically. Not for Peter Coyote,
the award-winning politically engaged actor,
director, screenwriter, author, narrator and
ordained Zen Buddhist priest, who eventually found
clarity, wisdom and truth in spirituality. But the
longtime Mill Valley resident would be the first to
admit that he may not have made it without the many
mentors who seemed to pop up in his life when he
needed them the most. And so it is to them that he
dedicates his second memoir, “The Rainman’s Third
Cure: An Irregular Education” (Counterpoint Press,
April 14), a follow-up to 1998’s
"Sleeping Where I Fall."
Despite the emotional pain he endured in his youth,
Coyote clearly has come to embrace it as much as the
many joys he’s experienced in his 73 years.
"Where would our
tenderness come from, where would our empathy for
other people come from if we didn’t have suffering
to soften us?" asks Coyote
in the rich smooth voice that has narrated more than
120 documentaries, including Ken Burns’ recent
seven-part series "The
"We might think we were
While "Sleeping Where I
Fall" was more a social
history of the 1960s and his association with some
of the leading forces of the Bay Area’s
counterculture movements — the San Francisco Mime
Troupe, the anarcho-activist Diggers, the Black Bear
Ranch commune, even the Hell’s Angels — his new book
is much more personal, with explorations of his
romances and womanizing, heroin addiction, acting
career, health struggles from hepatitis C and
Which made it much harder to write, or as Coyote
playfully says, "like
pooping a porcupine; it was rough."
"What I wanted to do was
talk about what growing up and learning was about,
and how intelligence is not just the province of
just the educated or the rich or the favored. That
it’s a universal gift of mankind, and if you know
how to look for it and recognize it, you can see it
in a lot of unusual places,"
says Coyote, his long, lean frame dressed in jeans,
a chambray shirt and beads.
Coyote was the first-born of Ruth and Morris Cohon,
a successful and whip-smart investment banker who
attended MIT when he was 15, played chess with grand
masters and once boxed with Ernest Hemingway. Morris
Cohon was hard on his son, born Robert Peter Cohon.
"He was a fabulous man,
but he was a disaster as a parent and probably as a
husband," Coyote says.
"He thought I maybe wasn’t
so bright, he thought I was weak, sort of a
poetic-airy little kid."
Coming down from a peyote high while he was in
college, he saw tracks around him that looked like a
coyote’s, and later got another sign that it might
be his spiritual animal. He adopted the name Coyote
as a way to distance himself from his family and the
messages he heard from his father:
In many ways his father was a mentor, too — by
default, he taught Coyote self-sufficiency — but
Coyote relied on other mentors to help him navigate
The first was Suzie Howard, a young black woman who
moved in when his mother had a breakdown when he was
not even 3 years old, and who brought peace and love
to him and his baby sister, Elizabeth. Too young to
understand their mother’s lingering depression,
Coyote writes he and Elizabeth "transferred
our loyalties to Sue with barely a glance over our
Coyote didn’t make peace with his mother until he
was in his mid-30s.
Among his other mentors were Beat poet Gary Snyder,
haute couture stylist Nino Cerruti and his Buddhist
teacher Chikudo Lewis Richmond.
Coyote had been introduced to Buddhism several
times, but began to practice regularly when he met
his first wife.
The marriage ended in 1998 after
23 years - "the
greatest single failure of my life,"
he writes — but he became even more devoted to
Buddhism, becoming ordained in 2011.
By then, he had success as chairman of the
California Arts Council under Gov. Jerry Brown in
his "Governor Moonbeam"
days” — somewhat ironic for a man who spent a good
part of his youth fighting the establishment.
"It turned out I had a lot
of skill sets from living on the road as a hippie,
moving into strange and sometimes dangerous
communities and learning how to get close to people,"
He also was a “bona-fide movie star,"
appearing in such films as "E.T.,
"Legend of Billie Jean"
and "A Man in Love"
although he began acting when he was 40,
His memoir’s title comes from a Bob Dylan song,
"Stuck Inside of Mobile
with the Memphis Blues Again,"
whose lyrics include "The
rainman gave me two cures."
Coyote saw the two 'cures'
as metaphors for power and love, and the struggles
to find the right mix. It wasn’t until he began
practicing Buddhism that it occurred to him that
there might be another option.
"I realized there was a
third choice to love and power, and that was wisdom,"
he says. "I made the
decision to spend the rest of my life listening to
it and, to the best of my abilities, speaking to it."
Kirkus Review calls his memoir an
"often descriptively brilliant biographical
"Remarkably forthright and
insightful," notes the
His father has been dead a long time and while
Coyote may not have quite forgiven him, he’s no
longer angry — he feels more pity and tenderness, he
As a father himself, Coyote is aware that he, too,
stands in judgment by his children — Ariel, 46,
a psychologist in Park City, Utah, and Nick, 30, who
works for Christie’s in New York City.
"I can say I never
terrified them," he says
matter-of-factly, sitting in his sunny apartment
filled with Native American art and artifacts.
"I was a very maternal
kind of guy. I tended to be attracted to women who
were not so maternal, but I think there was a lot of
careless, crazy stuff, certainly that my daughter
was exposed to in the '60s."
He admits his son was angry at him until his 20s, in
part because of the divorce when he was just 6.
"I think some of my past
is uneasy to read for him,"
says Coyote, who is separated from his second wife,
Stephanie, vocalist for Olive & the Dirty Martinis.
Still, they talk weekly on the phone and Nick asks
for his opinions. "That’s
a big compliment to me."
He believes they’d treat him kindly if they were to
write a memoir about him, teaching them to see
everyone as equals.
While Coyote still has an occasional role in film
and TV, acting is less fun than it used to be. He’s
focusing more on his writing, compiling his numerous
poems for publication.
And he’s enjoying being a grandfather to his
daughter’s 9-year-old daughter. "More
fun than sex in your 20s,"
Coyote Web Site ]