October 24, 2017
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
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
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
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,"
"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
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
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
"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 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
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