Peter Coyote on a life lived aloud
“I was so incensed with the news that I forgot you were calling,” Peter Coyote says, apologizing for his abrupt greeting, while a TV babbles audibly in the background.
“Well, that's kind of why I'm calling,” I tell him. It's an appropriate lead-in for the conversation we're about to have about fake news, his retirement from acting, his conversation with Daniel Ellsberg (happening today in Petaluma), and how Zen Buddhism helps him cope with it all.
For Coyote, being “incensed with the news” has been a lifelong obsession. He was a political and social activist long before he acted in films like “E.T.” or “Erin Brockovich.” He was fighting corporate America long before narrating epic Ken Burns series like “Prohibition” and “The Vietnam War.” He was trying to stop over development of Marin long before writing books like “Sleeping Where I Fall.”
Every morning, Coyote records “Morning Joe” on MSNBC and watches CNN and Fox, looking for “common threads.” He canceled his Facebook account after news of the election data heist by Cambridge Analytica. But then he restored his account after fans begged him to resume posting his favorite political articles.
“So I opened up my Facebook page last night,” Coyote says in a phone conversation, from his one-and-a-half acre spread outside Sebastopol. “I wrote on it, ‘I'm coming back because people have asked me to come back. But I will click no ‘Like.' I will click no ads. And I will remind myself every day that when I receive something free on the Internet, I am the product.'”
Three years ago, he moved out of Mill Valley after “I found myself wanting to drive around and shoot out stop lights.” After 30 years of fighting development in Marin County, he finally gave up.
It's only a minor battle in a lifelong war against the system. Born Robert Peter Cohon 76 years ago, he got his name from coyote paw prints he saw in a peyote vision. When he says, “I have to tell you Daniel Ellsberg is my hero,” it carries a certain weight when you consider Coyote helped kickstart the 1960s student protest movement. In 1961, he and 13 other Grinnell College students drove from Iowa to Washington, D.C., to protest the nuclear arms race by fasting for three days in front of the White House. The Grinnell 14, as they came to be known, were eventually invited inside to meet with President John F. Kennedy. But Coyote soon learned it was nothing more than a publicity stunt staged by national security advisor McGeorge Bundy.
“When I left that meeting, I realized the only way I was going to get his attention was if I came back with an army. And I actually thought, as things evolved, that the counterculture was going to be that army. Not a militant army, but a cultural army to change values and perceptions.”
Moving to the Bay Area to study with poet Robert Duncan at San Francisco State University, Coyote continued looking for “counterculture alternatives,” founding the Diggers, a radical theatrical group, and touring extensively with the San Francisco Mime Troupe.
In 1971, when the Washington Post and the New York Times published Ellsberg's Pentagon Papers, Coyote was out of touch with mainstream media, often living without electricity, far from the reach of radios and televisions.
But he would learn that “Daniel Ellsberg did an enormous service to the United States, which unfortunately was not heeded.”
As evidence, he points to the 18-hour “The Vietnam War” PBS series he narrated. “One of the great lessons of that series is that there were five American presidents who understood that the war was hopeless and couldn't figure a way to get out and save face. And that the generals and the leadership were lying to the political class.”
Now, talk of lying politicians is almost a daily, if not hourly, news discussion.
Although Coyote has narrated more than 100 films, his work with Burns has cemented his voice as one of the most recognizable in the business. It's hard to imagine a Ken Burns documentary unfolding without Coyote guiding the journey. But it started with a less than promising meeting.
“When we met, he was carrying this big stack of papers and pens and DVDs and notepads. I said, ‘What's all that?' and he said, ‘Well, that's so you can watch the movies, read the scripts, and make your notes.'
“I said, ‘No, I just read it when I get in the studio.' And he said, ‘Oh no, that will never work. You don't know how impeccable I am.'
“I must have had brat juice for breakfast because I said, ‘Well, you don't know how good I am.'
“There was this frozen moment and he said, ‘OK, we'll rent a studio for a month and we'll try it.'