September 22, 2017
Kevin L. Jones, KQED:
"The Summer of Crap": Peter Coyote on Vietnam and Life
in the ’60s
After 50 years, Peter Coyote still hasn’t changed his
opinion on the Summer of Love.
"It was crap," the 75-year-old Coyote says. "Who cares?"
Coyote’s talked a lot about the ’60s this past year — in
case you hadn’t heard, it’s the Summer of Love’s 50th
anniversary — and to hear Coyote tell it, the experience
has been miserable. Cable news channels and other
organizations have "dragged" Coyote "out of the old
hippie diorama to talk," and they rarely discuss the
revolutionary ideas he helped germinate with the radical
theater group the Diggers. Instead, "all they wanted was
the fashions, the rock and roll posters, and the music,"
"I went to the deYoung show, which I narrated, and it
was an embarrassment," Coyote adds. "There were a lot of
people who were putting their lives on the line to make
change, and you would think everyone was just going to
rock and roll shows and wearing bellbottom pants."
But at least one project this year focuses on what was
"really important" to Coyote in the 1960s: Ken Burns’
THE VIETNAM WAR. The 18-hour long documentary
series, which Coyote narrates, examines in detail the
history of the conflict, its causes, and its impact on
both Americans and the Vietnamese. And when Coyote looks
back at his work with the Diggers, fighting the causes
of the Vietnam War was at the heart of it.
"It wasn’t trying to be 'radical,'" Coyote says today.
"It was trying to get people to understand that the core
organizing principle of American culture was profit and
private property, and that led directly to the war in
In 1961, Coyote — then a student at Grinnell College —
joined 11 other classmates on a trip to Washington D.C.,
where they held a three-day hunger strike against the
continued testing of nuclear weapons. The protest caught
the attention of then-President John F. Kennedy, who
invited the group to visit the White House — the first
time a picketing group received such an invitation from
a president, according to Coyote.
At the time, Kennedy was in Arizona, so they met with
McGeorge Bundy, a special advisor to the president.
"We had gone to Washington thinking we had brought
information from the field to the White House. We were
going to tell them what young people were thinking,"
Coyote said. "I’m sitting in front of Bundy, and I
realize that we are nothing to him. We are a problem for
his president, and we needed to be solved."
Coyote adds, "I realized the only way I was going to get
this guy’s attention was to come back with an army. Two
years later, I thought the counterculture was going to
be that army."
After graduating from Grinnell, Coyote moved to San
Francisco to study under the poet Robert Duncan at San
Francisco State University. But he didn’t stay in school
for long, as the counterculture and his acting with the
guerilla theater group the San Francisco Mime Troupe
became his focus.
No longer a student, Coyote was called in for a military
service exam in order to be drafted for Vietnam. He had
applied for conscientious objector status, and even
offered to be a medic, but those appeals were rejected.
It looked like Coyote was going to war.
Except that by then, Coyote was an experienced actor.
"I actually pretended I was completely sane," Coyote
says. "I insisted that I would do whatever they wanted —
rape, looting, killing — but I would keep what I
His performance convinced the military service examiners
that he was unfit for duty, and so Coyote went back to
theater in the park instead of war in a far-off land.
Today, Coyote says he would’ve fought for his country,
but only if it was the one being invaded.
"We invaded Vietnam. People forget that," Coyote said.
During the late ’60s, Coyote traveled all over the
nation causing a ruckus with the San Francisco Mime
Troupe’s brand of free, outdoor "guerilla theater." In
1967, still using the last name Cohon (he adopted the
name Coyote after peyote trip), he co-wrote and starred
in a short play called Olive Pits, based on a
16th-century commedia that Coyote updated to reflect the
Vietnam War and other current events. The play was a
hit, receiving rave reviews and winning the troupe its
first OBIE Award from the Village Voice.
But Coyote became dissatisfied with theater, even with
the guerrilla theater the San Francisco Mime Troupe
"It felt too safe to be on a stage where you can control
everything," Coyote said.
Coyote and six others splintered off and formed the
Diggers, an anarchist collective determined to incite
change through theater. But instead of staging plays,
the Diggers hosted events with subliminal messages. For
example, they gave away free food, but in order to be
fed, one had to walk through a large yellow square
called "Free Frame of Reference."
"It was like a ceremony. You stepped through it and
imagined yourself in a world with free food," Coyote
The point of the Free Frame of Reference and later, the
Free Store, was to show others what the world could be
like if everything was free. Such experiments saw the
Diggers not only rebelling against capitalism, but the
political tactics of the established left wing.
"We challenged ourselves and others to imagine a world
that we’d like to live in, and then make it real,"
Coyote said. "We felt that if people had a life that
they liked, they might be willing to defend it. They
were not going to throw themselves on the barricades
because they read Mao’s little red book."
The Diggers evolved into the Free Family, which
established a series of communes that reached from
Northern California to the Pacific Northwest, and
throughout the Southwest. Coyote says he loved those
days, even though they subsisted on little — he averaged
about $2,500 a year, and much of the commune’s funds
came from welfare. But everyone seemed to do their part
in terms of chores and other responsibilities, the
entertainment came from board games and being with each
other, and the group learned it didn’t need much to be
happy. For Coyote, it was "a wonderful life."
"It was the perfect confluence of living the life your
art described," Coyote said. "If I didn’t need health
insurance, I would still be living on a commune."
But it couldn’t last, especially after commune members
began having children. Coyote says that those with
families came to resent the free spirits who wanted to
hang around getting high all day. And when conflicts
arose, those in the commune didn’t have the tools to
resolve them. In the end, members began separating
themselves from the rest of the group.
"What we learned is that we are the problem. We grew up
in this culture, with bad habits, impulses, egoism,
selfishness and everything else. We could pretend we
didn’t but it wasn’t actually true," Coyote said. "We
were so intent on building a new world, we didn’t
concentrate as fully as we should’ve on building our
In 1978, Coyote returned to theater, which led to a
successful acting career — he’s since been in over 70
films, including blockbusters like E.T. the
Extra-Terrestrial and Erin Brockovich.
He also began a fruitful career in voice work, which has
led him to become the go-to voice for documentarians
such as Alex Gibney and Ken Burns. Burns and Coyote
started worked together in 1992 on the documentary
The West, which Burns produced. Coyote has gone on
to narrate nine of Burns’ documentaries.
The Vietnam War, Burns’ newest series, is already
being hailed as his best yet. Coyote narrated all 18
hours of the documentary, and he says that while working
on it, "there was a lot of re-living."
"I was amazed how passionately my memories and feelings
about the war came up," Coyote said.
He also had a major discovery from the series: that the
North Vietnamese weren’t the good guys Coyote assumed
they were back when he was protesting the war.
"People had all these romantic ideas about the VietCong
and the Viet Minh. Well, those guys were just as bad as
our guys," Coyote said. "They were murdering civilians
over ideological disputes, and burying them alive
because they didn’t want to waste bullets."
Even though Coyote can admit that he was wrong in some
ways, he remains angry that the work of the
counterculture was later portrayed in the media as a
failure. He blames Reagan-era conservatives for shutting
down surpluses and doing all they could to ensure that a
left-wing counterculture never saw prominence again.
"It’s true that the free lifestyle is unsustainable, but
it doesn’t mean you have to give up your values. Most of
our kids became nurses, healers, doctors, and
environmentalists, and I’m really proud of them," Coyote
August 28, 2017
news for Canadian TV viewers. Last fall Peter
spent a good deal of his time up in Montreal filming a
6-part original mystery series for CTV. It's
called THE DISAPPEARANCE and it'll debut on
Sundays at 9 p.m. beginning October 1 on CTV and CTV GO.
You can watch the trailer
at this link.
"The Disappearance" is a dark, emotionally charged drama
that focuses on a family’s struggle to cope with an
unthinkable tragedy when a 10-year-old boy goes missing
during a birthday-party treasure hunt; Peter plays the
family patriarch, a retired judge who has been estranged
from his son and his wife but is drawn back into their
lives when the horrible event forces them to turn to
each other for support and comfort.
Peter says he was immediately intrigued by the first two
scripts his agent forwarded to him, but admits he
underestimated the workload that signing onto the
project would bring.
He says, "The producers were very clever. I thought,
‘Oh, I’m the grandfather; it’ll be great — I’ll work a
couple of days a week and I’ll collect my checks. It
won’t be too hard.’ And then I came up here and got the
scripts for the other four episodes, full of night
shoots in Montreal in the winter, outside. And I
thought, ‘Oh, you want to kill an old Jew.’"
This project and this city have been something of a
revelation for Peter. Even after nearly four decades in
the business, he embraces the possibility of
eye-widening surprises such as this that keep him
interested in his craft.
"Every actor should be lucky enough to film in Quebec,"
he says. "I really can’t think of a more enjoyable film
I’ve had, in terms of the camaraderie of the crew and
the cast, and the lack of authoritarian bull on the part
of the director and the producers. It feels like a
charmed environment... it’s exactly the way I like to
previously reported, Peter has narrated another Ken
Burns project. This time it's a 10-part documentary
called THE VIETNAM WAR, which will be broadcast
on PBS starting September 17. At a KQED event last
month, Peter was asked about his own experience with the
Vietnam War draft. He’d applied to be a conscientious
objector and written an essay expressing his beliefs,
and was turned down. He started graduate school and
dropped out, and then "they drafted me. I went into the
psychiatric interview, and said I would go ... 'but I am
not going to go and kill people.'" He was classified
1-Y, to be called only in extreme emergency, he said. "I
told the exact truth, with the worldview I could have
Peter said he has done 170 narrations, some of which —
for "The Roosevelts," for example, which he felt touched
upon his parents’ lives and beliefs — involved him
emotionally. "But when this one came up, this is one
time I was flabbergasted at the degree my emotions and
my memories were in my throat," he said.
July 27 playwright and actor Sam Shepard passed
away at age 73. Peter, who Shepard cast in the 1980
world premiere of his play "True West" at the Magic
Theatre, remembered Shepard in an interview with The
Frame as someone whose "genius was unmistakable."
"You didn't have to be close and intimate [friends with
him] to realize how gifted and how original and how
profound he was," Peter said. He recalled that Shepard
"had a kind of tarnished eye toward the business of
Hollywood," and was "very much dedicated to real, as
opposed to commercial, art."
April 4, 2017
was recently in Paris to participate in an event called
"American Stories" held on March 26, 2017 at the
Philharmonie de Paris. He was delighted to once again
read Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait", this
time with the Orchestre National d'Île-de-France. He has
previously performed it in 2015 at the Napa Valley
Performing Arts Center as well as with the Greensboro
Symphony in NC. Both of these previous times he
performed with conductor Dimitry Sitkovetsky, seen in
the third photo taken in March 2015 in Napa Valley.
March 15, 2017
Coyote-narrated documentary is now available online.
BELO MONTE: AFTER THE FLOOD, directed by
award-winning filmmaker Todd Southgate, explores the
history and consequences of one of the world’s most
controversial dam projects, built on the Xingu River in
the heart of the Brazilian Amazon. It chronicles the
inspiring work of indigenous peoples, grassroots
activists, and their allies to prevent dam construction
and its many impacts. The film exposes the gross
disregard for the
of law that marked the entire project, including a
massive corruption scandal involving high-level
politicians and construction companies. And it shows the
unfulfilled promises for bringing “progress” to this
remote Amazonian region. Since the film first premiered
in late 2016, it has demonstrated huge potential for
raising awareness and stimulating public debate on this
critical issue. The film has also been well received at
film festivals. It can be viewed online at the film's
website, which you can
February 3, 2017
Back in November Peter originally published "Democrats
Need to Clean Up Their Own House" on dailykos.com, a
daily weblog with political analysis on US current
events from a liberal perspective. It has now been
published on this web site
at this link.
December 26, 2016
2017 BAMPFA calendar under its Big Ideas program
now lists Peter as one of its speakers next year. BAMPFA
stands for Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.
Big Ideas is a UC Berkeley course open to the public.
This year's theme, California Countercultures, is
inspired by the BAMPFA exhibition Hippie Modernism: The
Struggle for Utopia. Peter will discuss the Diggers,
communes and community on Wednesday, April 12th at 12
will also see the return of the Bay Area's Emmy Award-winning
series, BAY AREA REVELATIONS, narrated by Peter.
The next chapter will tell the story of how the Bay Area
became one of the most innovative and successful movie
centers on earth.
Lion's Roar web site, an essay by Peter can be
found called "It! It! It", in which he shares some
of his Buddhist wisdom through his personal experience.
month Peter was in Quebec filming a six-part series
called THE DISAPPEARANCE for CTV, which will air
in summer/fall of 2017. While on location, the press
caught up with him. He admits he's fairly picky about
the roles he takes on these days as he has become more
and more reluctant to leave his northern California
ranch. "I have my dogs and my fruit trees," he says.
Peter plays a retired judge plunged into despair when
his beloved 10-year-old grandchild goes missing. The
script for the Canadian series had to pass his "must
surprise me in the first ten pages" test. It did. He
also liked that it was a limited run series. He gave a
shout out to Montreal as a great city for an actor and
praised Canadians in general as "grown-up Americans."
When questioned about the upcoming 18-hour Ken Burns
epic, THE VIETNAM WAR, he said, "It's going to be
a shocker. Really, the only people who come out of this
conflict with any honor are the warriors on both sides.
Politicians on all sides were despicable."
2001, Winter 2002,
Winter 2003, Spring
Summer 2003, Fall 2003,
Winter 2004, Spring
Summer 2004, Fall 2004,
Winter 2006, Spring 2006,
Summer 2015, Fall 2015,
| Latest Tracking |
Sleeping Where I Fall |
Coyote in Print |
TV& Stage |
Audiobooks | Photos