From townonline.com, 7/21/98 by Ed Symkus:
ACTOR-ACTIVIST PETER COYOTE HOWLS AT THE WORLD IN AUTOBIOGRAPHY
There are those who feel that Peter Coyote is simply an aging hippie, living in the past, anti-establishment, roiling over with left wing political rhetoric.
He'd probably admit to all of the above. But besides being a proud product of the '60s, Coyote is an accomplished actor, essayist, director, songwriter, activist, auto mechanic and raconteur.
That last part, a teller of stories, is what makes his new autobiography so fascinating and entertaining. "Sleeping Where I Fall" (Counterpoint) is chock full of personal tales on what it was like to be a free spirit in the days of psychedelia: dirt poor, roving from town to town, hanging out with the Hell's Angels, communing with poets and musicians, sharing relationships with an inordinate amount of women, trying out every drug that came his way, experiencing a wild, often outrageous way of life, and living it to the fullest.
"The editor of this literary magazine, Zyzzyva, asked me to write something a number of years ago," says Coyote from the lobby of the Harvard Square Hotel. "So I wrote an essay about a week's session in a Zen monastery. I had my mind wandering back and forth over these ventures. And there used to be a fine press in Berkeley called North Point Press and the editor in chief, Jack Shoemaker, was an old friend. He said 'This needs to be a book' and I took him up on it. That was about 1989 and I've been writing it ever since."
As chronicled in the book, Coyote, 56, started out as a street performer with the renowned San Francisco Mime Troupe in the early '60s, then got hooked up with a harder-edged group of artists and free thinkers called the Diggers, upon whom much of the book's activities are based. After some time in California politics, Coyote turned to a career in film in the '80s, with supporting roles in "E.T. the Extra Terrestrial," "The Jagged Edge" and others. He's probably best known for his edgy starring role in Roman Polanski's "Bitter Moon." But he's never been considered a star in Hollywood.
"I've often thought that if I hadn't gone through the Diggers, if I'd gone directly from the Mime Troupe into acting, I might have had a fair shot at being a star," he says without a lick of regret. "I say this only because I attracted enough attention starting at 40, which is already beyond the demographic curve, and I had my 15 minutes where it was kind of a toss up as to whether or not I was gonna be a star. And I'm actually regarded as a movie star in Europe and treated with a lot of respect and deference there. So I've had that taste, but I was already almost too old for America.
"So I think of that, but I also think I would have lost so much of my life and so much of the opportunity to deepen as a person," he continues. "And I might well have died. At that time in my life I was very indulgent; I had a lot of bad habits, minimal restraints. And if that had been coupled with lots of money and lots of fame and even more available women, I'd have gone right off the deep end, I'm sure."
Coyote, who changed his name from Peter Cohon after he had what he refers to as a "peyote vision" in 1962, is comfortable speaking about anything, no matter how personal. Asked if writing the amazingly detailed book worked as some sort of therapy, he ponders it momentarily.
"When I came out of the '60s, around 1975, I started evened out, I was working for the governor of California, running public policy in the arts. But you know, you don't stick needles in your arms for 12 years if everything's OK on the inside. So I put myself into therapy. I found someone I wanted to be like. I started working with him. I worked with him for four years, he died, I started all over with someone else.
"And at the same time," he adds, "I was kind of deepening my concentration. So I won't say the book was a therapy. What the book did serve as was a 10-year meditation on this period of my life, which gave me distance and perspective and plenty of time for deep thought. It helped me to come to terms with it, put it to rest as a chapter in my life with fond regard, and make sure I was moving on without dragging tendrils and unresolved issues with me."
Throughout "Sleeping Where I Fall," Coyote falls just short of waxing poetic on those good old days. To be sure, he and his friends and lovers went through some hard times, but they were times of change, of excitement in the air, of forging ahead and trying to challenge and change the system. The world was filled with wild promise. Is he disappointed with how things have turned out?
There's a long silence. His fingers, one of which is ringed by a small skull, come up to his lower lip. He takes a deep breath. His answer is a thoughtful one.
"What I say to you is now governed by 25 years of Zen practice," Coyote says. "I think the world is always what it is and what it has been. And I think media pushes it right up to our eyeballs and our eardrums, and makes us feel that far flung events are immediate. If we didn't have radio and television and newspapers, life for most people would be kind of routine and humdrum. Every once in a while wars sweep through, and savagery and other things. Rwanda as an event circumnavigates around the planet. It shows up in Bosnia, it'll show up on this continent one day. Whether it's over current economic seeds or whether it's a century in the future, something will happen."
"When I was a young man I had high hopes that my generation would make substantive changes. And I think we did. But I didn't anticipate what we would lose as well. I think we affected the culture in profound ways. If you look at the civil rights movement, the anti war movement, the holistic health movement, the environmental movement, the organic food movement, the women's movement, the men's consciousness movement, alternative spiritual practices, I think you'll have to admit that there's no place in the United States that's not been touched by all of these concerns."
"On the other hand," he adds, almost grimly, "we have lost a lot of ground against the unrestrained forces of multinational capital, against imperialism, against America's establishing the model of all development in the Third World as capitalistic. We've lost ground by having the '60s misdefined by pundits like George Will and Bennett and Saffire and these kinds of people. And that's one of the reasons I wrote my book. I objected to the misdefinition and I'm at odds with its political intent: to subvert another generation of student activists and radicals and idealists and committed, engaged people. I'm not trying to recapitulate the institutions of the '60s, but the intentions of the '60s. So that those intentions are now manifested with kids becoming paralegals, paramedics, social workers, doctors, environmentalists, tree huggers, what have you. They're working within the framework of democratic capitalism. I see great continuity in young people today, in people trying to make a difference, and I'm very heartened by that."
But Coyote doesn't have much free time to relish the positive thoughts. The book jacket suggests that his schedule is "relentless," his obligations "myriad."
He nods his head in agreement.
"I have two children. One is a doctoral candidate, one is 13. So part of my schedule is dedicated to them," he says happily. "Part is dedicated to reading scripts, part to voice-overs, part to travel, part to dub previous films. The week is very different depending whether I'm home in Northern California or whether I'm on location [in a movie]. If I'm on location, I'm committed to work and life is simpler in a way because all my problems are consolidated. If I'm home, I'm accessible. And I would say 90 percent of my mail and phone calls are from people who want some kind of help or succor or commitment from me to do something. That takes a long time. And then there's correspondence and my own reading and thought and just your normal chores and taking care of your life.
"And I have one extremely able and overworked assistant who helps me," Coyote adds. "It's a busy life."
Ed Symkus is a CNC arts writer. This interview took place in Boston on April 29, 1998 while Peter was on his book tour.
Photo credit: Margaret Farmakis