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October 24, 2017

The Literary Hub has an excellent interview with Peter called "Peter Coyote, Voice of the Vietnam Generation". Here's an excerpt:

"When I narrated The Rooseveltís, that was my parentís time, and it was something I was conversant with, and it brought up a lot of emotion. But when I did The Vietnam War, that was my time and it really did bring up a lot of emotionóit was very strong and powerful for me to do. But Iím a Buddhist priest, and the thing is that you donít really select what you like and you donít like. You actually look at the world the way it is and the world is an infinity of beauty and miracles and itís also an infinity of horrors. And if you canít stare at both unflinchingly youíre off balance. A couple of people have commented on how I treated the disasters [in the series] the same way I treated the joys, and thatís true. Thatís a conscious practice on my part."

You can read the full interview at this link.

October 15, 2017

From Voice Acting by Hugh Klitzke - Study Peter Coyote's Compelling Narration in Ken Burns' THE VIETNAM WAR PBS series:

As an actor, Peter Coyote has a voice of tremendous appeal: you just like his sound. This is important, because you're gonna hear his voice for most of TVM. But appeal is never enough. A narrator creates context, specificity, drama - and a narrator also needs to be directed to get out of the way.

Coyote is directed to get out of the way of TVM's most important voices: LBJ in the oval office (always subtitled), Americans horrified at their own capacity for violence, the grown children of South Vietnam grateful that Americans were coming in to lay down their own lives for their freedom.

Coyote is also directed to read slowly (very slowly at times) to define specific terms like Viet Cong (contracted from Vietnamese Communist).

His inflections are never arbitrary and never sound repetitive. They are very specific and have purpose.

Overall, his read can be characterized as flat - but never to the point of sounding disinterested or robotic - and you are compelled to keep watching. A very delicate line.

Now, compare all of this to Coyote reading audiobooks. There you hear hear him being mellifluous and energetic, wry and playful, everything he is never tasked to do by Burns.

Let me suggest you check out excerpts with the closed captions on and off - perhaps parts of the first episode as they talk about history and the fifth as they talk about battles.

And also make the time to watch the entire thing all the way through. This is an outstanding collaboration worthy of your time and analysis.

September 22, 2017

Kevin L. Jones, KQED:

"The Summer of Crap": Peter Coyote on Vietnam and Life in the í60s

After 50 years, Peter Coyote still hasnít changed his opinion on the Summer of Love.

"It was crap," the 75-year-old Coyote says. "Who cares?"

Coyoteís talked a lot about the í60s this past year ó in case you hadnít heard, itís the Summer of Loveís 50th anniversary ó 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 Burnsí 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 wasnít 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 ó then a student at Grinnell College ó 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 ó 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. "Iím 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 guyís 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 didnít 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 ó rape, looting, killing ó 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 wouldíve fought for his country, but only if it was the one being invaded.

"We invaded Vietnam. People forget that," Coyote said.

During the late í60s, Coyote traveled all over the nation causing a ruckus with the San Francisco Mime Troupeís 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 weíd 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 Maoís 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 ó he averaged about $2,500 a year, and much of the communeís 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 didnít 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 didnít need health insurance, I would still be living on a commune."

But it couldnít 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 didnít 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 didnít but it wasnít actually true," Coyote said. "We were so intent on building a new world, we didnít concentrate as fully as we shouldíve on building our lives."

In 1978, Coyote returned to theater, which led to a successful acting career ó heís 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 Burnsí documentaries.

The Vietnam War, Burnsí 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 werenít 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 didnít 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.

"Itís true that the free lifestyle is unsustainable, but it doesnít mean you have to give up your values. Most of our kids became nurses, healers, doctors, and environmentalists, and Iím really proud of them," Coyote says.