Actor, activist, author, musician, singer-songwriter Peter Coyote is
one of the Bay Areaís favorite luminaries, a charter member of the
ďI could live in Hollywood but choose not toĒ club that also
includes Sean Penn, Danny Glover and Robin Williams. Coyote was born
Robert Peter Cohon in Pennsylvania in 1942, and migrated west to
pursue a Masterís Degree in Creative Writing from SFSU in 1965.
In San Francisco, he became involved with the SF
Mime Troupe, which performed radical political street theater.
During the Summer of Love in the í60s, he became a co-founder of The
Diggers, an anarchistic group that supplied free food, housing,
medical care and music (by Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and the
Grateful Dead) to many of the cityís homeless.
It was during this time that he adopted the name
Coyote. His candid memoir of that time, Sleeping Where I Fall, is
now in its seventh printing, with a chapter from the book winning
the Pushcart Prize for Excellence in Nonfiction. He also wrote,
directed and performed in a play, Olive Pits, which won an Obie
From 1975 to 1983, Coyote became a member and
later chair of the California State Arts Council, which provides
public funding for arts projects. He shifted from stage to film
acting in the late 1970s, and achieved recognition for his leading
roles in ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, and Jagged Edge. His work to
date includes 90 films, as well as featured roles in many television
series. Heís provided voice-over narrations for over 120
documentaries and 16 audiobooks.
Buddhist, Coyote lives in Marin County with his attractive wife,
Stefanie Coyote, executive director of the SF Film Commission. Heís
the father of a grown daughter and college-age son. We spoke to the
actor by phone just as he returned to the Bay Area at the end of the
Jennifer Raiser: Weíre glad to catch you at
home. Where have you been this summer?
Peter Coyote: I just got back from fishing with
my son at Henryís Fork of the Snake River in Idaho. My son and I are
ďtechnical fly fishermen.Ē We watch the fish feeding, and pick a
specific fish that we want. Then we study the hatch, the insects
that the fish are eating; we match our fly to the hatch, and then go
after this one fish. You have to present your fly exactly for it to
take ó you can go four hours or more to get a particular fish. And
then you release it. Itís the Ph.D. of fly fishing.
How can you tell youíve caught the right fish?
They make a certain sipping sound at the surface. The fish on
Henryís fork are extremely educated; theyíve been fished a lot, so
theyíre not easy to fool.
So what did you catch?
We caught rainbow, brown, cutthroat. Weíve been doing this every
year since he was six. I was a half-time parent; the first year I
had him for a month in the summer, and thought, ďWhat am I going to
do with a six-year-old?Ē So we lived outside for a month and roughed
it. Now that heís in college, we can get in eight or nine days
fishing every year.
Do you always fish the same
The last several years weíve gone back
to Henryís Fork Lodge; itís really upscale. Weíre fed really well
and have excellent guides, and itís not roughing it at all. Itís run
by Nelson & Patsy Ishiyama, both extremely devoted fly fisherpeople.
Do you get to spend time with your daughter, too?
My daughter is married, and delivered my first grandchild this
January, a girl. Being a grandfather is fabulous. I didnít know how
Iíd feel about being a grandfather, but when I heard the news I got
this warm honeyed feeling in my stomach.
When will you start taking her fishing?
Itís probably better that she starts walking first! But yes, as soon
as sheís ready, Iíll take her. Iíve noticed that women tend to fly
fish in a way thatís distinct from men, a way that I prefer. They
work the graceful fly rod with a form I admire. They understand that
catching is only part of the experience of being on the river, of
appreciating the scenery, of the whole continuum.
Youíve just finished filming in Canada. Did you get to fly fish
No, when Iím working, Iím pretty
much committed to just work. I was filming Resurrecting the Champ
with Samuel L. Jackson and Josh Hartnett. Itís written and directed
by Rod Lurie. I got to do a real character cameo. I play an old,
crippled-up Jewish fight promoter. Itís very, very different from
what people are used to seeing me do, and I love that.
What other work have you been doing?
Well, Iíve been doing a cable television show called
"The 4400" ó
itís a high I.Q. science fiction show on the USA Channel. I was also
with Geena Davis playing the first woman president. ABC fired Rod
Lurie, who created it; the new guy they hired drove it off the air
in 15 weeks. The way they let it go was really sad. So right now Iím
at liberty and looking for a TV series. Itís kinda nice to show up
at the same place every day, and the income is more dependable. Iíd
like to use a series to stash away a little bit of getaway money.
Where do you want to get away?
(Laughs) I havenít figured that out yet. Itís harder to get away now
that Stef is so busy on the Film Commission. This is the first time
weíre not able to travel together whenever we want.
I know youíre passionate about this area. Why do you live here
instead of Hollywood?
Well, I love the
weather; I love the fog, the chill, the coolness, the moisture.
Second, I love the Bay Area because of its small size. The
small-town feeling makes it very easy for artistic people of all
kinds to bump into each other. Itís no accident that Pixar got
created here; all Steve Jobs has to do to speak to George Lucas is
pick up the phone. And I love that itís a writersí town. It has a
history of thought and communication, of wit and humor. Itís a real
city thatís defined by geographic outlines, with the Bay on one
side, the ocean on other. Itís got a comprehensible outline, whereas
L.A. does not; it sprawls from city to city to city. I get tired of
discussing the film biz when Iím in L.A. I want to scream, ďAnybody
out there reading a book?Ē
When do you have
time to read?
I read on location all the time;
I buy books like candy. Iíll read four or five books during the
course of a movie. I do it as a way of keeping my energy in between
takes, so Iím not telling jokes and stories. Itís a way I retreat.
What books are you reading right now?
I just finished Greg Palastís new book. Itís called
"Armed Madhouse: Whoís Afraid of Osama Wolf."
Heís an American reporter who writes for The Guardian in
Britain. He seems to come into contact with purloined documents that
people mysteriously drop on his desk. And I just read a book by
Antonia Juhasz, a brilliant woman, called "The
Bush Agenda: Invading the World one Economy at a Time".
Itís a very disturbing book about how the U.S. military is being put
at the disposal of Americaís multinational corporations.
What the hell is the other book that Iím reading? Iíve a mind
like a stainless steel colanderÖ. Oh, here it is,
"Imperial San Francisco" by Gray
Brechin. Itís a great story of water grabs, land grabs, corporate
and political alliances in San Franciscoís history.
Those sound pretty serious. Are you reading anything for fun?
Well, for fiction, I just finished reading "A
Fine Balance" by Rohinton Mistry. Itís
kind of a big, sprawling Dickensian novel about India; very moving.
I seem to be on a kick for reading third world literature.
Letís talk about your own writing. Your book laid it all out: the
drugs, the communes, the activism, the liaisons... .
Iím comfortable with everything I said in that book, in fact very
proud of it. Itís being used in a number of university courses in
1960ís studies. I donít pretend itís a universal document of anyone
elseís experience. The more personal the document, the more
accessible it is to others. Iím amazed
that itís still in print. Itís sold around 50,000 copies so far.
Thatís much more than people expected. Most books sell around 3,000
Youíve got a lot going on. How do you
divide your time?
Divide? Oh golly; depending
on how hungry I am, I may take whatever comes in the door. In the
last two or three years, most of my work has been for TV. Itís not
unhappy because some of the best writers are gravitating toward TV.
Now youíve got The Sopranos, West Wing, Deadwood, Weeds, Six Feet
Under, The WireÖall great.
Have you written anything for TV?
I sold a pilot for TV that didnít get made, as most of them donít. I
work with Silvia Peto ó a brilliant writer in Seattle. Weíve had
more than our fair share of interest, but things didnít go our way
on that one. Iím working on a screenplay, a fictional rendering of
my book. Iíve written eight screenplays, but they havenít been made
into films yet. Iíve also written a lot of
political essays for blogs; Iím a writer who makes his living as an
actor; I like that I donít have to write for money, I can write what
You became a movie icon later than most
leading men. Any advice for aspiring actors?
The film business is a young manís game. Most stars are in their
early 20s. I was extremely lucky to get leading roles in my late 30s
and 40s, but in short order, I was out of the demographic. They say
you get three shots at leading man. If your films arenít making
money, youíre relegated into the pool of character actors. Iím not
at all bitter. At least I got my shots. I gave my youth to something
else. Thatís the long and short of it. What I took away from myself
from the perspective of acting, I gained in experience.
I might add that the situationís a little different in Europe
where I seem to have a lot more prestige and importance. The body of
work Iíve done is respected; Iíve been on the cover of just about
every magazine in Europe. I speak French and Spanish; I like being
there. Iím like a dog ó I go where Iím petted and fed. Last year I
did two films, "Le Grand Role"
and "Bon Voyage",
in French. When my son graduates from college, Iíll probably sell my
big house in Marin and get a smaller one here and a small place over
Whereís ďover thereĒ?
Probably Paris, where I love the cultural life. My office is the
Cafť de Flore; I go every day between 11 and 1 when Iím in town. The
word gets out, so people stop by to see me. My other favorite
hangout is Allard, a very old-fashioned French restaurant.
What are your favorite hangouts closer to home?
My all-time favorite restaurant anywhere is Chez Panisse. Alice
(Waters) has raised the bar high for everyone. Iím a long-timer at
the Hayes Street Grill in the City, and we go to JardiniŤre after
the Symphony. I like the Slanted Door; I like Yank Sing on the
corner of Broadway and Stockton: it looks like a dive but itís
great. And the Ocean restaurant way out on Geary. Iím in the city
two or three times a week. And then thereís Frantoio and De Angeloís
in Mill Valley, and Sushi Ran in Sausalito.
Do you get special treatment because youíre
(Laughs) I donít cause a ripple.
Sure, Iíll see people do a double take or whispering, but most
people leave me alone. Iím not at the age where women are signing
their underwear and sighing.
Do you listen to
I listen to music all the time, but I canít
listen to music with words when I write, so I have a lot of
classical music. I was just with Dmitry Sitkovetsky, a violinist and
conductor whoís played with the SF Symphony. He gave me two CDs of
his father, Julian Sitkovetsky, playing Bach partitas and Mozart and
Tartini.Iíve got four daysí worth of music on my iPod. Iím a big
bebop fan, also into bluegrass. I like people who write and sing
their own music as opposed to big pop stuff. I likeÖhere Iím opening
up my iPod.Ö Iím a huge Dylan fan; then you know Dylanís heir as
singer-songwriter is Springsteen. Tina and Molly OíBrien are two
great singer-songwriters from the folk world. Iím also a big gospel
fan. I love Jessie Winchester, thereís a blast from the past, and
James McMurtry, whoís Ira Mcmurtryís son. Sleepy John Estes is one
of my favorite blues singers. And I listen to Diana Krall, Cassandra
Wilson, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Ray Charles ó I donít know how
many Ray Charles albums Iíve got.
Youíve done over 70 voiceovers, mostly for
environmental and political nonprofits. Why?
Itís my form of income redistribution; I take money from commercial
voice-over jobs, then I do dozens and dozens of pro bono
documentaries that are never going to pay me. I can do several a
week. Sometimes Iíll make a deal; Iíll do it free, then if it gets
sold, you can pay my fee. My name can help some nonprofits get
credibility with potential funders.
Your voice is so resonant; some people say
youíre ďthe new Henry Fonda.Ē
Thereís never going to be a new Henry Fonda. He
was a unique and fabulous actor; Iím flattered that people compare
my voice to his. And besides, heís got children whom I know and
respect who definitely donít want to hear me called the new Henry
Your website says your ďgreatest
addictionĒ is fixing your 1964 Dodge Power Wagon that youíve owned
for three decades. Is that what you drive?
Hey, life changes. I sold it on the morning of my daughterís
wedding. Howís that for a Freudian event? Now I drive a motorcycle
every day, and I have a Prius for foul weather. When that lease is
up, Iím buying a Volkswagen and will run it on biodiesel.
What are you blogging about right now?
very involved with politics. The two issues Iím most concerned with
are the integrity of the vote and getting corporate money out of the
election cycle. For voting machine
integrity I work with a group called Voter Action, started by a
bright businesswoman named Holly Jacobson. Itís fueled by local
lawyer Lowell Finley whom I met during the 1996 Democratic
Convention. We sued the Registrar of New Mexico over fraudulent
actions in 2004, so the governor accepted our case and banned voting
machines. Weíve got local lawsuits in 14 other states. Look, if you
canít trust the integrity of the vote, you donít have a democracy.
And if you donít have trust, the country never coalesces behind the
winner. There have been serious suspicions of fraud in both of our
past two presidential elections. The country has never healed, which
is why we have these really corrosive red state and blue divides.
What about corporate political contributions?
You need wealthy corporations to have a wealthy country. Iím not
against corporations in general, but most corporations have so much
money and power, and one simple unconflicted goal to maximize
returns for shareholders. Now you have a
situation where the corporate sector wants to have a say in the
political sector. No politician can get elected without corporate
money, so no Democrat or Republican can speak to issues that
corporations donít like, such as higher wages, consumer safety,
federal electionsÖ. Until the
taxpayers pay for elections and we prohibit corporate fundraising,
weíre in the thrall of these corporations to make our public policy.
And until our public airwaves are turned over to public debates
during election seasons, we wonít have an informed electorate. With
our current system, Iím watching my country turn into the richest,
most powerful third world country on the planet.
Coyote Web Site ]