by Cynthia Robins, San Francisco Examiner - April 19, 1998
He is about to embark on a book tour to support "Sleeping Where I Fall" (Counterpoint), a half-autobiography really, that reveals in great detail the secrets Coyote, born Peter Cohon 56 years ago, has never really kept. The book stops somewhere around 1979 and hardly addresses Coyote's 20-year film career, which is not to be the subject of a second book, he says. At least not yet.
In his salad days in the mid-to-late '60s, Coyote was a high-profile member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe; one of the founders, with the late Emmett Grogan, of the Diggers, the proto-hippie group that believed in free food, free housing and, by association, free love; and finally, as a communard in one of the floating Free Families that populated Mendocino and points north. He was also a serious drug abuser who, in the 10 years between 1969-1979, watched 18 of his friends die.
How then is he still alive?
"Luck," he says. "I did everything you could possibly do to yourself. In hindsight, while I was writing this book, I could see that each of us has a part that wants to die. In a way," he says sadly, "this book is an act of mourning."
Coyote stretches out his 6-foot-3-inch frame on a worn swivel chair at the utilitarian desk in his office, a nondescript former garage made personal by a wall filled with signed photographs (Roman Polanski), movie posters ("Jagged Edge" and "Lune de Fiel," the French version of Polanski's "Bitter Moon" ) and a cover from Vogue Homme featuring his own sardonic likeness.
"My health was seriously compromised," he says of those days when heroin was in his daily diet. "It's an ongoing problem even today. I have liver trouble related to all the drugs I did. I watch myself very carefully."
There were other "dues," he says. "Young people, for whom I should have been a role model and an uncle, duplicated my worst habits and died as a result. And as for relationships? Where I didn't have the maturity and the compassion to consider other people's needs, I did a lot of damage."
As Coyote talks, his words slow down and get very, very precise, as if he wants every bit of thought recorded accurately; a holdover, he laughs, from the period in the late '70s when he was a Jerry Brown appointee to the California Arts Council. The meticulousness of expression belies the absolute chaos of the life he chose to live - a hedonistic backlash to a violent but brilliant father whose temper he has inherited.
"Morris Cohon," says Coyote, "was like a lovable pirate." He was an investment banker whose pride in his own Jewishness often brought him to blows with those who would disparage his heritage. He was highly competitive, and often took on his son in wrestling matches that Cohon would never let Peter win. His temper was monumental and frightening. "Yes, I inherited my dad's temper and I struggle with it to this day. I see myself inflicting it on my own son and I am mystified that it still floats through time like an aberrant gene. Heroin and other drugs were for me a means of suppressing it and keeping it asleep."
His father, says Coyote, was so competitive that "as a kid, I took a kind of vow never to compete. I didn't understand until I wrote the book that such a vow removed me from the "normal' things in life - like status, advancement, sports, achievement. So the counterculture was perfect for me. It had its own ideological assertions, but they were in conflict with who I appeared to be to myself and became as stultifying as my father's world."
In his commune days, Coyote was one of those dangerous men that women love to love (and think they can change). He was, in theory, serially monogamous with a parade of strong, gorgeous women, but was probably as profligate with his sexual favors as a rock star. Women obviously knew what they were getting into. ( "I'm so charming," he says with a glittery twinkle in his opaque blue eyes.)
"I could never believe it. Here I was in Olema by myself, so sick I couldn't walk and these little damsels would trip up the road. I am fascinated by women. They're as close as we men get to experiencing "the other.' The challenge for me was to know and accept fully formed, powerful women."
When the communes began to dissolve, Coyote returned to the acting profession which had served his leftist ideologies so well with the Mime Troupe. Ironically, his first film was "Die Laughing," starring, he laughs, "Robbie Benson and a monkey." Choosing to live in Northern California has cost him. To keep brie on the table in his family's woodsy Marin home, he works continuously in quirky projects that give him great personal satisfaction - and great reviews, for "Heartbreaker" and "Bitter Moon" - but haven't allowed him to get big enough to "open" a film like Harrison Ford or Bruce Willis. (He recently co-starred in the Barry Levinson film "Sphere." )
He says he is not bitter about the recent spate of young actors like Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon "who have turned movie-making into unrestrained capitalism" or about major stars "taking 95 percent of the talent budget for any film."
His critique of Hollywood, he insists, "is not sour grapes. But you do hear frustration. I've been doing this for 20 years and I have built a reputation and a life and suddenly - at my age - I have to work so much more to maintain my family and my lifestyle."
The car, by the way, is for sale.