In the Mix

with Peter Coyote

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A veteran of twenty-one films, Peter Coyote was born Peter Cohon in New York City half a century ago. In the mid-sixties he went out West to pursue a master's degree in creative writing but instead quickly became involved with the" remains" of the famed Actors' Workshop. After a short time, however, he switched allegiances and joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe: he found the members more passionate and provocative—and they offered him better roles. By 1966 Coyote was directing a scandalous production of The Minstrel Show and touring the United States with the cast which was renowned for its critical success as well as for its repeated arrests. Just a year later, the show won kudos from the establishment in the form of an Obie. But viewed through the radical lenses of the day, the honor was considered a sure sign of having been co-opted—disgusted, Coyote left.

Returning to San Francisco at the height of the counter-culture revolution, Coyote and members of the Mime Troupe founded "The Diggers," an urban coalition dedicated to everything that was free; they baked bread for the Summer of Love and they ran the Free Store. For twelve years he was an honorable member of the Free Family and The Diggers, living in communes and in a refurbished truck, taking an inordinate amount of drugs ("mind-expanding" and otherwise), and "exploring absolute freedom." On this gypsy path, he met poet and Zen prophet Gary Snyder and, struck by the encounter, was inspired to read extensively about Buddhism. When Governor Jerry Brown later appointed Snyder head of the California Arts Council, Snyder asked Coyote to participate. In 1975, Coyote became the Council's Chair. After three years his thoughts turned once again toward acting and, at the same time, he began a regular zazen practice. He decided to give his second shot at acting five years. After a stage appearance in 1980 as the lead in the premiere of Sam Shepard's True West, his film career took off.

Coyote now studies Zen with Robert Aitken and Nelson Foster—although he counts Snyder as his teacher, too. His most recent film Sleep Where You Fall, directed by Roman Polanski, has just opened in Europe. These comments were compiled from a conversation with Coyote at his home in Mill Valley, California; in the course of our meeting, he scanned the trees for the birds he loves, consumed an enormous bowl of new potatoes with sour cream, and talked about his profession and his practice.

—David Schneider


There are two kinds of actors: icons and transformers. A transformer is somebody like Dustin Hoffman, Vanessa Redgrave or Robert DeNiro who completely loses himself in his character. An icon reflects one side of his character that audiences like to identify with: Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger. It's a real career decision, because while audiences may respect you as a transformer, they will never love you—they will never clutch you to their bosoms.

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