SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS - June
Peter Coyote's complext life
unveiled in "The Rainman's Third Cure
by Georgia Rowe
The road to enlightenment has
been a long and winding one for Peter Coyote. In his
new memoir, "The Rainman's Third Cure: An Irregular
Education" (Counterpoint Press, $26, 288 pages), the
Marin-based actor, activist and Zen practitioner
takes the reader on a vivid Pilgrim's Progress -
one, he says, that was often driven by the twin
forces of love and power.
Taking its title from a Bob Dylan lyric, the book is
the second memoir for the 73-year-old Coyote (his
first, "Sleeping Where I Fall," was published in
1998). Over green tea in his modest Mill Valley
apartment, the tall, lanky author says it was time
for another look at his life.
"The first book was a memoir of a period," he says.
"That was 15 years ago. I've changed since then."
Indeed, Coyote has probably gone through enough
changes to fill several memoirs. Born Robert Peter
Cohon to a wealthy New York family, he's lived an
amazingly full life, one that has taken him from
East Coast privilege to West Coast communes, from
Hollywood to Zen centers.
Coyote, whose warm, earthy voice is unmistakable,
speaks with the distinctive timbre that has made him
the popular narrator of Ken Burns' PBS
documentaries, such as "The Roosevelts." But it's
his quixotic interests - and the challenge to live
according to his high ideals - that drive him.
Coyote, who changed his last name at a shaman's
suggestion, writes that his early life was filled
with confusion. His investment banker father,
Morris, was "very, very rich," but a hard
taskmaster; his mother, Ruth, was distant and often
depressed. Parenting fell to the family housekeeper,
Susie Nelson, a kind African-American woman who
introduced him to jazz. Increasingly, Peter sought
refuge in music and nature, visiting Greenwich
Village clubs and spending long hours roaming his
father's 150-acre Turkey Ridge Farm.
Lessons in power came as he spent time with "Uncle
Harry," a shadowy New York "fixer" employed by his
father. As a teenager, Coyote was arrested on a pot
charge in Mexico; he still marvels at the way Morris
stepped in and made the charge disappear.
Coyote gained independence at Iowa's Grinnell
College, where he was drawn to the allure of
theater, and at San Francisco State, where he
studied creative writing. After settling in the Bay
Area, he started his career as an actor, working
with the San Francisco Mime Troupe - "it had the
most beautiful women," he says -- and the Magic
Theatre, where he appeared in the world premiere of
Sam Shepard's "True West" in 1980.
It was during this time that Coyote joined the
Diggers, a loose-knit counterculture group dedicated
to the ideals of communal living. He spent nearly a
decade with them, living in a commune in the Marin
town of Olema. By the time he left, he was broke,
with a heroin habit and a family to support.
With the aid of a state grant, Coyote embarked on a
four-year post as chairman of the California Arts
Council, where he says he learned to wear a suit and
negotiate with the politicians many of his Digger
cohorts loathed. "It turned out I was skilled at
creating consensus," he says, noting that the
council's budget rose from $1 million to $16 million
during his tenure.
At the unlikely age of 40, Coyote became a Hollywood
actor. He made dozens of feature films, including
"E.T.," "Erin Brockovich" and "Cross Creek." He
didn't particularly like the movie scene. "It paid
for a couple of houses and put my kids through
college," he said.
His greatest successes, he notes, were in Europe. He
calls "A Man in Love" (1987) the film he's proudest
of. "It put me on the cover of every magazine in
Europe," he says wryly, "and both people who saw it
in America loved it."
Throughout his adult life, Coyote has been drawn to
Zen Buddhism - he writes of his friendship with poet
Gary Snyder and credits a visit to Snyder's Northern
California home with showing him the value of a
beautiful, organized life. In recent years, he has
deepened his practice, becoming a Zen priest.
Today, Coyote says his lifelong search isn't over.
Currently separated from his second wife, Stefanie
Pleet Coyote, he's preparing to move from Mill
Valley to Sebastopol, where he's recently purchased
a home. But he says that Zen practice has given him
"Once you realize that it's not your responsibility
to keep yourself alive - the universe is doing that
for you - it takes a big weight off your shoulders,"
he says. "You settle down into your intuition, and
life gets a lot simpler."
Coyote Web Site ]