by Deborah Hochberg
It seems the verdict on the 60s is still out. At one extreme are those who look back
in horror at an era of shameless excess to which every manner of social malady currently
plaguing the country can be traced. Then there are those who wax nostalgic for a time when
every convention was questioned; revolution seemed imminent; and anything and everything
Weighing in with his take on the decade is film actor Peter Coyote, whose recently
published autobiography, Sleeping Where I Fall,
is a candid yet unapologetic, firsthand account of life at the epicenter of the
counterculture - the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.
Arriving in the city in 1964 to study creative writing, Coyote soon joined the San
Francisco Mime Troupe. Taking its inspiration from Italian commedia dellarte, a
16th-century form of improvisational theater that used stock situations and characters,
the Troupe disseminated a radical social agenda through farcical, collectively written
plays, while simultaneously attempting to break down the boundaries between performers and
Coyote also became deeply involved with the Digger movement, a group which evolved out
of the Mime Troupe milieu and was dedicated to living with complete authenticity and to
manifesting a society that didnt depend on money - thus its Free Bakery, Free
Medical Clinic and Free Store. Coyote eventually left the city and took up a nomadic
existence, residing at a series of rural communes and attempting to realize his vision of
uniting these disparate communities.
By the mid-70s, Coyote found himself serving on the California Arts Council, and
it wasnt until he was nearly 40 that he even considered pursuing a career in film,
achieving his first major breakthrough with the role of the scientist Keys in Steven
Spielbergs ET (1982). Since then, he has acted
in more than 60 feature films, using the skills he honed performing guerrilla street
theater to create a series of rich, complex characterizations.
Set in 1928 and based on the memoirs of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings,
CROSS CREEK (1983) is the story of a young woman (Mary
Steenburgen) who forsakes marriage and security in order to pursue her ambition to become
a writer of Gothic romances. Moving to an isolated hamlet in rural Florida, she finds her
true subject matter in the hardscrabble lives of its eccentric yet dignified residents. As
her love interest, Coyote plays the hotel keeper from the nearest town, a man who persists
in his attempt to win Marjorie despite her prickly moodiness and reluctance to surrender
her independence, in the type of role that probably helped earn his reputation as
"the thinking womans sex symbol."
CROOKED HEARTS (1991) has Coyote as the
patriarch of the Warren clan. As a man who easily compartmentalizes different aspects of
his life - sound familiar? - his dishonesties reverberate throughout the family system
with ultimately tragic consequences.
In BITTER MOON (1992), Roman Polanskis
perverse evisceration of love and relationships - a film imbued with its directors
characteristically pessimistic regard for human nature - Coyote gets a role he can sink
his teeth into. When we first encounter him as Oscar, he is human wreckage -
wheelchair-bound, caustic, cynical and highly unpleasant, yet inexplicably linked to his
sensual, feral young wife. Oscar latches onto a normal, proper and very English chap
played by Hugh Grant, forcing him - and, by implication, the viewer - into the role of
confidant, a receptacle into which he spills the contents of his sordid tale of a couple
bound by extremes of passion and cruelty they are unable to experience with anyone else.
If there is one of Coyotes films which absolutely must be seen, it is
KIKA (1994), Pedro Almodovars surreal, sexy, Spanish
screwball comedy in which Coyote plays a surly American writer named Nicholas Pierce. The
plot, which defies description, involves a flighty, motor-mouthed beautician, her
statuesque lesbian maid, a porno star serving time for crimes against public health who
escapes during a religious procession, and Andrea (Scarface) Caracortada, who manages to
make Jerry Springer look like a serious journalist as she presides over her television
show, "Todays Worst," in some of the most outlandish costumes ever to hit
the screen. Among the many pleasures afforded by this film is the opportunity to hear
Coyote toss off his lines in flawless Spanish.
[Correction: In the final editing, they dubbed Peter's
Recently Coyote has appeared in the sci-fi thriller
(1998) as Barnes, a resolute, no-nonsense engineer in charge of an exploratory team whose
members include a mathematician (Samuel Jackson), a biochemist (Sharon Stone) and a
psychologist (Dustin Hoffman) who are sent to check out a spacecraft embedded in the ocean
floor, with the possibility of encountering an alien life force. The suspense kicks in
when things begin to go awry within the claustrophobic confines of their underwater
habitat and none of the highly qualified personnel proves able to get a grip on what
theyre dealing with.
Coyote has crafted a varied career, playing the gamut from romantic lead to villainous
scoundrel. In addition to feature work, he has stayed true to his activist roots by
narrating numerous documentaries, especially on Native American and environmental issues,
working a balance between commercially viable roles and his personal, political vision
that was forged during the cultural turbulence of the 60s.
[Published 2/9/99 in the ORLANDO WEEKLY under
Coyote Web Site ]