This is the first in an ongoing series of pieces that will appear here at McSweeney’s, to coincide with the release of the fifth season of the Organist, the arts-and-culture podcast we produce with KCRW. You can hear more from this interview, along with several other features, on the latest episode of the Organist.
Peter Coyote has a golden voice. He’s narrated the 2002 Winter Olympics, a massive Apple advertising campaign, and won an Emmy for his work on The Roosevelts, one of many films he’s narrated for the documentarian Ken Burns.
Well-regarded as a voice actor, Coyote came up through the Northern California counterculture. In the 1960s, he began performing as a street actor with the San Francisco Mime Group and later founded the anarchist group the Diggers. Since then, he’s appeared in Hollywood productions such as E.T., Bitter Moon, and Erin Brockovich. He’s written two memoirs about his life (The Rainman’s Third Cure and Sleeping Where I Fall), which include stories of his relationship with Gary Snyder, the time he met Miles Davis as a young boy, and being healed by Rolling Thunder, a Shoshone medicine man.
After decades of practicing Zen Buddhism, Coyote was ordained as a Zen priest in 2015 at the age of seventy-four. He has a small zendo, or meditation hall, on his property in Sebastopol, which I visited for a talk over tea and lunch.
— Ross Simonini
ROSS SIMONINI: Have you enjoyed your work?
PETER COYOTE: Let me put it this way: I don’t love the movie business. I loved being in the San Francisco Mime Troupe. I loved writing and directing plays there and traveling. And then I quit that and we formed the Diggers and I did like close to fifteen years in the counterculture and, you know my people, we played for keeps. We gambled everything on it. It didn’t turn out the way we thought it would, and largely through our own mistakes, but also through pressures of the culture. And so, I wound up in 1974 or ’75 as a single father of a daughter and no money and no income and no nothing. Then Gary [Snyder] won the Pulitzer Prize that year and Jerry Brown appointed him to run the State Arts Council and Gary nominated me. It turned out to be something I was really talented at. And the next year I was elected chairman, and I ran it for almost four years before the State Legislature passed a law forbidding me to do it again. And it was a huge success. We raised the budget on my watch from like one- to sixteen-million dollars a year, and it gave me the confidence to realize that I didn’t have to be, you know, just a hippie on the outskirts of the culture. That I had learned how to work within the mainstream and how to talk to everybody. I was saved by Republican legislatures, over and over again. I had to have an open relationship with them. Talked fishing, hunting, talked philosophy. And they realized I was not an ideologue, realized I was not blaming them, and many times they pushed my budget over the objections of the legislative analysts’. Then they voted against me on the record to protect their butts. So I said, “Well, I’m going to try the movie business for five years.” So I did, and I got lucky.
RS: And was that during the E.T. period?
PC: Yeah. Just before that. I was thirty-nine when I got my Screen Actors Guild card. So had I been younger, I would have probably gone to RADA, The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. I think the English and the Russians are the best-trained actors in the world, and I would have really studied classical acting. But because I didn’t, I always had sort of a hole in the bottom of my confidence as an actor, you know? I always felt like I’m a good actor, but I’m not a great actor. And maybe it’s because I didn’t commit in a certain way, because I didn’t have any training, or it may be because I’m a person that’s more of an observer, and I’m a little out of touch with my feelings. It takes me a lot of time before I actually know what I’m feeling. And most actors, either smart or dumb, are directly in touch with their feelings. So I didn’t enjoy the movie business. I enjoyed it for a while. It was new. It took me all over the world, it overpaid me, it got my kids through school debt-free. But at a certain point, I realized there was nothing about it that was conducive to the excellence of the artists. If the artists were excellent it was because they were excellent over and above all the obstacles that the film business threw in their path. The scripts were more and more written by committee, and more and more the overriding concern of money just permeated everything. So I’m actually trying to retire now, and it’s a little hard — I’m in my seventies — but I just don’t want to get on a plane anymore and do Revenge of the Zombies 5. I don’t need to. My house is paid off and my kids are on their own and debt-free, out of school, and so what I really prefer to do is write. And I always did and I have always described myself as a writer who made his living as an actor. But in answer to your question, twenty minutes later, yes, I by and large enjoyed everything I did. And even when I don’t want to go to work, when I get there and get on the set, I have a good time. I make it my business to have a good time. I make it my business to make the set a comfortable and happy place to be around. Because everyone does better.
RS: You mentioned Return of the Zombies 5. Have you done a lot of B-films?
PC: Oh, yeah. If you look at my oeuvre, I’ve done a hundred and forty something films. And out of that there’s maybe a dozen that I’m proud to have done, and all the others are just rent. You know, Marcello Mastroianni once had an interview in an Italian magazine I read and he said, “You know, we’re not very far removed from the idiot who does handsprings through the town square, screaming, ‘Look at me! Look at me!’” He said, “In the Middle Ages they wouldn’t bury actors within the city limits.” He went on to say that the amazing thing is that occasionally we get to do something wonderful. And I thought, Well, fuck that, man. If that’s good enough for Marcello Mastroianni, I’ll do that.
RS: Your formal training was miming, right?
PC: Yeah. But there’s a difference between mime and pantomime. So pantomime is the creation of objects that don’t exist, in space. If I go to show you I’ve got a cup, or lift the bucket or I pull a rope or I replicate all the forces that I act on or that are acted on the body without any objects, that’s pantomime. And it uses no speech. But it’s very difficult to express concepts in pantomime. And so in mime, the classic pantomime is Marcel Marceau. But so there’s another whole school of mime, which was led by a great professor named Étienne Decroux. And that’s sort of the school of Charlie Chaplin, where an umbrella can become a rifle, it can become a cane, it can become a pool cue. Two forks and two potatoes can become legs and do a little dance. And so the mime troupe was very definitely in that latter idiom. And we used words but we also used a lot of physical comedy and acting because we performed outside. And so we represented sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Commedia dell’arte, Italian street theater. Kind of like Punch and Judy shows. With stock characters, masks. And we adapted them to talk about contemporary issues. But it was never pantomime in the sense that you see those guys standing in Union Square with white face paint. No, we were down and dirty.
RS: Do you consider voice acting a form of acting?
PC: Nah. To me, voice work is communicating, pure and simple. I’m talking to someone. I have someone specific in mind. And if I don’t, I’m talking to the microphone, and it’s alive. And it’s the only way; it’s why I do voice-overs cold. I do all my voiceovers cold. I’ve never read them until I go into the studio. I call it “playing jazz.” It’s like, first thought, best thought. First feeling, best feeling. Whatever comes off the text is coming out of my mouth, and it works for me. So no, it’s not acting; it’s not pretending to be someone else. It’s not creating a character as a means of telling the story. It’s not.
RS: In your books, you’ve found a casual, anecdotal way of writing. It’s almost like speaking.
PC: I think I’m a storyteller, that’s my gift. I’m not John Updike. I’m not Richard Ford. I’ve never been able to write a novel, but I’m a pretty good storyteller. I feel like I’m a pretty creative person, but even creativity has limits.
RS: You were a stockbroker for a second, right?
PC: That was the worst year of my life. It was a disaster. It was after my dad died. It was a scam to try to help one of his partners try to escape bankruptcy, and you know, to try to help my mother who had woken up to find that she was impoverished. He’d lost all of his money some ten years before and just… I was never so ill-suited to anything as I was to that.
RS: What age were you at that point?
PC: I would have been maybe thirty-one.
RS: When you became an actor, did you think about what kind of roles you would play? I remember you talking about transformer actors versus icons in your book.
PC: Robert Redford is an icon.
RS: And the transformer was more of the De Niro.
PC: Yeah, well, my vanity would like me to be a transformer, but I’m not so sure that I was. And I wasn’t delivered iconic stature. People have to want to be you. You have to represent some aspect of America that people want to identify with. I was never the cool guy in high school. I was never the guy that everybody wanted to be. I was sort of a little nerdy. The thing about transformers and icons is that audiences love icons. And I think they love them because there’s no surprises. There’s nothing that’s really going to unsettle you. But if you’re a transformer, if you can be a completely believable child molester today, and a priest tomorrow, you know, a Kevin Bacon, a Dustin Hoffman. Audiences, they may respect your skill but they’re never going to love you because they never know exactly what you are.
People don’t love Robert Duvall. They say, “Oh, he’s fantastic” — yeah, but they don’t love him. And they may not love Robert De Niro. They love Robert Redford, they love Tom Cruise. They love Jack Nicholson, who’s in some netherworld between the two, but so that was my observation. But I was a little inflexible. I tended to think that I had made myself the best way that I could figure out, so why change it? Had I been one of the cool guys, I might’ve been an icon. But I wasn’t.
RS: Did you want to be?
PC: I actually didn’t. I remember years ago, one of the first big roles I ever did I was working with Ellen Burstyn, who was phenomenal, and we were talking and I’d just started acting and I said, “I don’t want to be a star. I just want to be a working actor and make my living.” And she said, “Don’t limit yourself. The world will limit you. Don’t do it to yourself.” But the truth of it was that I was always suspicious about celebrity. I never liked it. I found it to be a pain in the ass and in some ways you could say that I undercut my own career. I never had a publicist. I never went to LA openings much. I stayed up here [Northern California]. I paid a tax on my career for that. And even so, I was delivered a certain amount of notoriety and celebrity. And most of the time it’s a pain in the ass. People come at you and they have all sorts of ideas. They’re either filled with adulation or competition or envy, or they want to cut you down, or they want to prove they’re as good as you, and all this shit that you have to bat out of the way just to have a fucking conversation. So I’ve never really found a use for it except that it allows me to get into any restaurant I want to get in to, and I can meet anyone I want to meet. That’s it. And I can sometimes shine a light on a subject that I think needs a light. There you have it.
Listen to the entire interview and the rest of Episode 92 (featuring Ellie Kemper, Penelope Spheeris, and more) of the Organist!