Peter Coyote's hippie past keeps him grounded

Paul Liberatore
Marin Independent Journal

After some R&R in Paris, Marin's Peter Coyote touched down briefly this week at his home in Mill Valley before flying off to Vancouver, where he's shooting a TV series.

"I'm ragged but all right," he said over the phone from his hotel.

Professionally as well as geographically, Coyote has been all over the place these days, working in both TV and films.

He appears in two movies in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which opens Thursday in San Francisco and comes to the Rafael Film Center Aug. 6.

And he's been a notable presence on the small screen, getting one particularly ecstatic review for his portrayal of a cold-hearted FBI agent in the Fox TV series "The Inside."

Saying Coyote is the best thing in the show, Nancy Franklin noted in the New Yorker that Coyote "didn't start acting until he was almost 40 - he was, and still is a broadly engaged political activist - and perhaps his full life as a human being is what makes him seem so grounded as a performer."

She goes on to gush about his looks ("He's a tall, trim tree and still good-looking at 62") and his voice ("It's measured and sane yet passionate, serious but not stern or judgmental, warm but not gooey ɢ

"My mother could have written that one," he said modestly. "It was amazing."

Disappointingly, though, even he couldn't save the Wednesday night drama, which has been canceled after this season.

"It's just a drag because it was an interesting show," he said. "Given the amount of work we did, it's sad, but what can you say?"

He's having better luck with the USA network series "The 4400," acting in six episodes of the disaster drama last season. The reason he's now in Vancouver is to shoot some upcoming shows, once again playing the director of Homeland Security, something of an ironic part for a political progressive whose actual government service was with the California Arts Council under Jerry Brown, aka Governor Moonbeam.

"I know," he admitted. "It is funny."

Coyote is not known as a comic actor, but he has the funniest line in the French film "Le Grand Role" ("The Great Role"), which has its Bay Area premiere Aug. 7 at the Rafael Film Center during the final week of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

In this touching dramatic comedy, he plays a famous American movie director filming a Yiddish version of "The Merchant of Venice" in Paris. In one scene, his character is pressured to go along with a well-intentioned deception, but he stubbornly resists, insisting, "Americans don't lie!"

"That made everybody laugh," he recalled. "This is a great low-budget movie. The director, Steven Suissa, is quite Jewish, and most of his characters in his films are from a Jewish milieu. My cultural background is Jewish and even though I've been a Buddhist for over 30 years, I had an affinity for the part. I just loved doing it."

But a film that most accurately reflects the real Peter Coyote is the documentary "Commune," which also has its Bay Area premiere at the Jewish Film Festival, screening July 26 at the Castro Theatre and Aug. 6 at the Roda Theatre in Berkeley.

Coyote was a prominent figure in several influential hippie era tribes - the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Diggers and the Free Family, writing of his exploits in his 1998 memoir "Sleeping Where I Fall."

In "Commune," directed by Jonathan Berman, he is one of many former free spirits who reflect on their youthful experiments in alternative living in the late '60s and early '70s at the Black Bear Ranch, a commune in Siskiyou County that, remarkably, is still in existence.

"There are successive generations of kids there," he said. "They're taking care of the place. It's a very loose, anarchistic relationship, but it's been running for 40 years."

Is he surprised by the longevity of Black Bear and the idealistic beliefs it represents?

"Not really," he answered, contending that "America has had a long countercultural history. This notion of anarchistic, freewheeling, communal living is part and parcel of American history and resonates with our cultural ideas."

Coyote's children have taken a more traditional path. His 20-year-old son is in college. And his married daughter, who grew up in VW vans and teepees and once remarked that she dreamed of living in a Macy's furniture showroom, has a Ph.D. in psychology and works in the state prison system.

Although the government under the Bush administration has become archly conservative, perhaps as a backlash against the kind of '60s era egalitarianism chronicled in "Commune," Coyote points out that the social changes the counterculture pioneered have succeeded in becoming part of mainstream America, unremarkable aspects of everyday life.

"The '60s changed the culture," he said. "We didn't change the politics. We thought we would end imperialism and capitalism, or moderate it, but we didn't do that. Those are huge historical forces that are going to take more than our generation to change. But if you look at what we did introduce to the culture - the civil rights movement, the organic food movement, the women's movement, alternative spirituality, alternative medical practices - these are huge. These are deep changes."

Coyote, who lived in many communes in his hippie days, including one in Olema in West Marin, is the most visible graduate of the Black Bear scene, rising out of the voluntary poverty of his youth to become a movie and TV star.

Scratch away the glamour, though, and Coyote maintains that you'll find the same idealistic young communard trying to change the world.

"Don't be fooled by a change in lifestyles," he said. "I have more money, so of course I'm going to live a little better. But I still adhere to the same beliefs of trying to contribute to waking this country up to the environment we're squandering and desecrating, and fiscal and social inequities that are dooming us to turmoil and a waste of lives and money."

But what does he take from his past that he brings to what he's doing now?

"Everything," he responded. "I had an opportunity to live life extremely large in a free, unfettered manner that gave me an incredible amount of data that is not available to civilians. That information certainly carries over in my work and is really useful. The real acting school is life."

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