Peter Coyote on a life lived aloud

The Sebastopol actor and writer opens up about fake news, how Zen Buddhism has changed his life and more.|

“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.'

“I said, ‘Oh no, it's nine episodes, we'll do an episode-and-a-half a day. Just get it for six days.' On the third day, he jumped up and said, ‘I'll never use anyone else.'?”

That PBS film was “The West,” and they've been working together ever since, teaming up for “Prohibition,” “The Dust Bowl,” “National Parks: America's Best Idea” and “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.”

These days, Coyote is far more interested in writing than acting.

“I've always been a writer who made his living from acting. And I've actually retired from acting. I was OK. I was competent. But I was not a great actor.”

But wait, isn't he appearing in the upcoming WGN series “The Disappearance”?

“?‘The Disappearance' is what finished me off,” he says, laughing. “It's a show I did in Canada. It's actually quite a wonderful show. Great cast, great script, great people. My last day of work it was 37 degrees below zero and I thought, ‘I am too old for this. My kids are out of graduate school debt free. I don't need to do this any more.'

“The other part of it was I was angry every day because over the last 20 years the producers have borne down on the actors and the crews - everybody's money is getting cut.”

It gets even worse when you consider the limited roles he was being offered. “The work that I was getting after I turned 50 was mostly to be a s--thead in a suit. You want a corrupt president? Get Peter Coyote. You want a corrupt politician? And it was the same guy over and over again.”

Today, he sees himself primarily as a writer. “It's what I've always been interested in,” he says. “But I didn't want to make a living as a writer.”

He's at work on his third book. His 1998 memoir, “Sleeping Where I Fall,” included a chapter that won a Pushcart Prize. And his 2015 memoir, “The Rainman's Third Cure: An Irregular Education,” told the stories of the people who shaped him.

Before he turns back to the incendiary daily news cycle - this day stoked by word of an FBI informant embedded in Donald Trump's election campaign - Coyote shares his secret to coping: Decades of Zen Buddhist study.

“The greatest thing that Zen Buddhism offers is the ability to disengage from your thoughts, and to watch them like you were watching a movie.”

As that “movie” continues to unfold, it's been heartening for the early '60s student activist to watch the next generation take the torch, as high school students in Parkland, Florida, battle the gun lobby. It gives him hope - well, almost.

“Hope is a funny word,” he says.

“I don't trade in hope too much. I practice something I call ‘radical optimism.' And radical optimism is based on one incontrovertible fact, which is that we don't know how things are going to turn out. And so the not knowing means that as long as I keep my shoulder to the wheel, there's a chance that it could break my way.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Cuban Missile Crisis took place in 1962. An earlier version of this story included a reference with an incorrect date.

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