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.”
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.
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.