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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," he says.

"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 Vietnam."

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 caught."

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 staged.

"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 said.

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 lives."

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 says.

August 28, 2017

Good 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 work."

As 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 written today."

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.

On 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

Peter 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

A 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 rule 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 access here.

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

The 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 PM.

2017 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.

At the 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.

Last 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."


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