Peter Coyote goes in cold.
Without reading a word of the script or watching the video in advance, the Bay Area actor and voice-over artist long associated with filmmaker Ken Burns steps into the studio and brings the images and narrative to mesmerizing vocal life.
"He's extraordinary," said Burns, whose partnership with Coyote continues Sunday, when the first chapter of a seven-part "intimate history" of "The Roosevelts" airs at 8 p.m. on PBS. "A great deal of the power of our films comes from the authority his voice brings to the proceedings."
"I think of it first and foremost as being authentic," said Coyote, settling his lean, long frame into an armchair in his Mill Valley apartment one recent fog-laced morning. "My gift seems to be that I am able to tell a story in a comprehensible and engaging way."
Coyote, who is also a film and television actor and author, compares his voice-over work to jazz and says he uses his peripheral vision to "see ahead of the words I'm reading. I can tell if there's a comma coming or a dismount on a period. The first time I read something, I have this special feeling of being fully engaged with it. It's fresh to the audience because it's fresh to me. It's a little mystical, but I really believe that."
The actor, who in his youth was a member of the counterculture group the Diggers, an experiment in anticapitalist free living, is quick to deflate any sense of self-importance about his acting career.
"People call me a movie star," he said, his eyes narrowing skeptically. "If you're in the business, a movie star is someone who can make a film bankable. My name and $6 million will make a $6 million movie. I'm a working actor. Because I started late, I had a very short run as a leading man, and my films didn't make money in America."
Nor was he ever so wildly overpaid. Coyote received $28,000 for playing Keys, the intimidating government agent in Steven Spielberg's megahit "E.T." When the film reached $300 million in revenue, Coyote said, the director sent him a "very generous thank-you" check for $10,000.
Coyote freely acknowledged that he may have "missed the boat" as an actor. One lost opportunity came when he was up for the lead role, captured by Harrison Ford, in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "I failed that audition," Coyote said simply.
There's no sense of sour grapes or excuse making when Coyote expresses a fundamental ambivalence about the Hollywood lures of fame and money. "I chose to live in San Francisco and not have a publicist and not go cut the ribbon at the boat show to get my picture in the paper."
Coyote, who began his theatrical career as a member of the agitprop San Francisco Mime Troupe and spent nearly a decade living off the grid with the Diggers, seems constitutionally incapable of settling for easy explanations. "Maybe my ambivalence about acting leaked into the audience. Maybe they weren't so sure I was a star, either. That's fair."
An English major at Iowa's Grinnell College who came west to study creative writing at San Francisco State, Coyote published his first book, "Sleeping Where I Fall," in 1998. It's a vivid, searchingly honest accounting of his life in the counterculture, by turns quixotic, ecstatic, convulsive, self-critical - he calls himself "obstinately opinionated" and admits to "an indulgent streak in my character" - and mordantly funny.
The strong opinions remain. Inveighing against the corrupting influence of money in contemporary politics, Coyote declared, "Congress has become conscripted as the concierge for the corporate sector. It's that simple."
In 2015, Counterpoint will issue "The Rain Man's Third Cure," a work Coyote describes as "a book about the mentors I had learning to negotiate the worlds of love and power." And, as he hastened to add, "not all mentors are necessarily good."
Born Robert Peter Cohon to a well-to-do Jewish family in New York, Coyote - he began using the animal name after meeting a Paiute-Shoshone shaman in 1967 - had a "difficult" privileged childhood. His father, a precocious and powerful figure who had attended MIT at 15 and boxed with Ernest Hemingway, was a dominant force in Coyote's life. "My dad was a very violent, frightening and dangerous guy," an investment banker who had "a vast intellect" and iron-hard views about almost everything. "Next to him, I was this vague kind of kid who walked around, as I still do, gathering impressions."
Coyote, who has a younger sister with whom he is still close, believes his father intimidated his mother and contributed to her nervous breakdown and emotional withdrawal when Peter was 2 1/2. "Like a little Benedict Arnold, I abandoned my mother and made Susie (Nelson, the family's housekeeper) my mother," he said. "I didn't find any intimacy with my own mother until I was 34."
At 17, Coyote was arrested with a friend in Texas for trying to transport 8 kilos of marijuana across the Mexican border. His father bailed him out and never said a word about it. After his father's death in 1971, his mother showed Coyote letters spelling out his father's fear that his son would be branded a felon and never able to work.
When Coyote got to Grinnell, he already had a presence. Science-fiction novelist Terry Bisson, a college classmate who has known Coyote for over 50 years, remembers his friend as a "colorful character, a little larger than life, who always had a bit of a glow about him. He made people around him feel special."
Both in print and in person, Coyote is clear-eyed about his long and deep immersion in the counterculture. While still proud of the widespread cultural legacy of the '60s - from environmentalism and the women's movement to alternative spiritual practices and slow food - he's quick to assess the political failures. "We didn't end war, imperialism, free market capitalism, racism."
As a member of the Diggers, Coyote was caught up in "pushing the bookends of the '60s as far as they could go." He moved around a lot, helped harvest 29,000 bales in one farm commune, slept with lots of women, had some heady and frightening moments with the Hells Angels, developed a "serial addiction" to heroin, and, for a decade, never made more than $2,500 a year.
"For a while, I thought it would go on forever," he said. "But we were so busy being heroes that we were actually quite smug about that and intolerant of other people." Day-to-day living had a way of running up against the values of absolute freedom. "For instance, if you wanted to wake up and wash your transmission in the sink where I was washing my face," he said, "there was no ideological argument you can make for liking a clean sink." Between 1965 and 1975, 18 people close to Coyote died of drug overdoes and other hazards.
By the time Coyote left the Diggers (later known as the Free Family), he was separated from his first wife, Marilyn McCann, and the single father of a young daughter and son, now both grown and living outside the Bay Area. He moved across the street from the Zen Center in San Francisco and began a practice that has remained important to this day. In 2011, Coyote was ordained a Zen priest and is now in the process of "transmission" from his teacher to become a Zen master.
In the early 1970s, Coyote stumbled into a job as a working artist through the federally funded Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). Through a friendship he had developed with the poet Gary Snyder, Coyote was invited to join Gov. Jerry Brown's California State Arts Council. As chairman, Coyote grew the budget from $1 million to $16 million, a triumph of populist lobbying in the halcyon days of state arts funding. He served on the council from 1975 to 1983.
"It was because of my success there that I realized I didn't have to stay a hippie," said Coyote. "I didn't have to stay on the fringes of society. It gave me permission to try the movies."
After a short apprenticeship at the Magic Theatre, capped by his performance in the memorable world premiere of Sam Shepard's "True West" in 1980, Coyote had an L.A. agent and a series of Hollywood auditions. He made his film debut that same year, in "Die Laughing."
In what he calls an "amicable" break, Coyote separated from his second wife, Stefanie Pleet Coyote, former executive director of the San Francisco Film Commission, last fall. Although he has lived in Marin County for many years, he recently moved to an apartment in a quiet complex.
Airy and simple, the white-walled apartment is decorated with American Indian art and artifacts that Coyote has collected over the years: masks, Hopi kachina dolls, feathers. A picture of Susie Nelson, his childhood housekeeper and close friend, hangs in his sparely furnished meditation room. He likes having an area where he can work on the burly Dodge Power Wagon parked in the carport under the stairs. As for being a first-time grandfather, he said, "It's better than sex at 20."
Diagnosed with hepatitis C, which he traces to his past drug use, Coyote has ongoing health concerns. He spent part of 2012-13 on a German drug trial that "only made me sicker." He's hopeful about a new treatment regimen.
Content to spend eight hours a day writing, a taste for solitude that he said "has caused problems with women in my life over the years," Coyote is living a largely peaceful and contemplative life. Brent BecVar, director of the Vedic Counseling Program at the Chopra Center for Well Being in Carlsbad (San Diego County), and a Coyote confidant for 14 years, described his friend this way:
"I see him as a naturally born prince who has wanted to reject his princely status and go out and find out what it is to be other than that in the world. A lot of his life has been a kind of odyssey. There is a natural nobility in him that the people recognize, continue to recognize. He's at a time of his life where he's letting go of the glamour and celebrity and really wanting to settle into a more spiritual life."
If that makes Coyote sound too serious or even a bit ponderous, he's always ready with a playful bit of self-deflation. "I'll probably move out of Marin at some point, because it's gotten so expensive," he said. "I'll do whatever it takes as long as I don't have to do 'Revenge of the Zombies 4' in Romania.
"Which," he added, with a perfectly timed beat, "I actually did last year."