Peter Coyote Is and Isn’t Retired

“I hope that I’m able to stop working as an actor,” Peter Coyote told me once. “I had a good run. It was good to me. But I’m not really a good actor, not in the first rank. I’m not inordinately talented.”

This was about a year and three Coyote IMDb credits ago, which brings him up to 150 for acting. He continued: “I was good enough to have a good career, start at forty and get my kids through school debt-free, and meet some wonderful people and have some great adventures. But much of what I had to do was just aesthetically so demeaning, and intellectually so demeaning. Finally, I thought: I’m not getting back on a plane to do Revenge of the Zombies 4 in Romania. I’m just not. I’ll stay home and write a book.”

So we don’t really know where Coyote is at, retirement-from-acting-wise, but we have a pretty good idea that his George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award from the San Francisco International Film Festival is not for diplomacy. Officially it’s for “outstanding and unique contributions to the art of cinema,” which in Coyote’s case could just mean seeing with an unwavering gaze through all the bullshit.

At seventy-four, the former well-born New York Jewish kid, bohemian wayfarer, self-administrator of a shamanic 1960s name change, alumnus of the San Francisco Diggers and the San Francisco Mime Troupe (not to mention films by Almodóvar, Polanski, Soderbergh, Spielberg), one-time California Arts Council chairman, ordained Zen priest and bracingly reliable narrator of Ken Burns documentaries certainly has been around.

The book Coyote stayed home to write was his fine memoir The Rainman’s Third Cure: An Irregular Education, released last year and following up on 1998’s Sleeping Where I Fall, his personal chronicle of the American counterculture. “I can’t think of anything cheesier than an actor writing two memoirs,” he said, and laughed. In person and in his books, you can sense Coyote working out an equilibrium between self-possession and self-deprecation. This balancing act seems less like a stunt than simple poise, surely the product of life experience and Zen temperament.

I met Coyote last spring at his then-transitory abode: one modest unit in a Marin County apartment complex, externally distinguishable from its neighbors only by a casually magnificent display of potted flowers, and the pristine 1952 Dodge Power Wagon—license plate “ZENWOLF”—parked in a carport below. (The press release about Coyote’s award concludes by disclosing that he considers this truck to be his least harmful addiction.) Unfussy living room decor combined books, DVDs, the accouterments of untold Native American ceremonies and a somehow not at all morbid smattering of critter skulls.

“In acting, I don’t even approach the realm of my heroes,” he went on, citing a wonderfully unpredictable roster off the top of his head: Marion Cotillard, Dustin Hoffman, “Ralph Richardson, the most mysterious English actor,” and Gary Cooper, whom Coyote considers quite underrated. “And of course Meryl Streep. I’d watch her read the Yellow Pages. So intelligent. She does what the Europeans do: she creates a character to serve the script. One of the things that really bothered me about American culture is that Strasberg and the Actors Studio kind of liberated the actor from the script. And you get the feeling that they were serving their own instrument, as opposed to serving the script. So when I look at British actors, it’s really refreshing because they create these wonderful characters that are designed to help the author tell a story.”

Peter Coyote and Henry Thomas in 'E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial'
Peter Coyote and Henry Thomas in ‘E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial’

After fixing us some tea, Coyote eyed my notebook and inquired with a fan’s interest about what kind it was. “I never go out without a notebook,” he said fondly. One thing Coyote likes to do when in possession of notebooks is fill them with quotations from beloved books. The novels of James Salter are liberally excerpted, and presumably so is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which Coyote said he loves and has read at least six times. “It’s a kind of moral clarity. It’s an ability to look into human behavior and see nuances and details that would evade me.” Coyote’s film-appreciation proclivities also imply literary foundations. He called himself “a huge Kurosawa fan,” and singled out the uncommon favorite Dersu Uzalafor being “a film about the kind of man civilization produces, as opposed to the kind of man nature produces.”

Cheesy memoir twofer notwithstanding, this may be the first and last author ever to have a book blurbed by both Samuel L. Jackson and Rebecca Solnit. “‘Spiritual path’ is too pallid a term for Peter Coyote’s odyssey,” observes the latter, herself a highly discerning practitioner of nonfiction odysseys. Jackson’s blurb meanwhile attests to the worldly full-of-life feeling Coyote exudes, and encourages, even just when hanging out over lunch.

All of which is good to keep in mind as context for Coyote’s film-industry critique. “At the end of every year I get movies from the Academy,” he said. “I looked at four or five foreign films, and they were all about fundamental, life-and-death, moral, political and social issues. And I looked at the majority of the films that I got from my own culture, American films, and they’re basically about some variation of boy meets girl. It’s not like we have less talent. It’s not like we’re less intelligent, but we’re so buffeted by fat and wealth and indulgence and ego-centric considerations, that we can no longer sink. We can’t go below the surface.”

He also would tell you that he wasn’t exactly part of the solution there. Does robust humility count as an outstanding and unique contribution to the art of cinema? Yes, although when Peter Coyote talks about hoping he can stop acting, I for one don’t want to encourage him.

“I loved the rehearsal process,” he said, not with any trace of ruefulness, but not in the present tense either. “And I loved the collaboration with other actors and a director, solving problems.” Then he was quiet for a moment, sipping his tea. “And I love the kind of natural chaos of movie sets. Like, there’s eighty people on the set, and these people have to collaborate to make something happen.” Ah, how slyly that tense had shifted; now suddenly we weren’t in the past anymore, and in fact we could even see a future.