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Coyote prowling


It seems the verdict on the ’60s is still out. At one extreme are those who look back in horror at an era of shameless excess to which every manner of social malady currently plaguing the country can be traced. Then there are those who wax nostalgic for a time when every convention was questioned; revolution seemed imminent; and anything and everything seemed possible.

Weighing in with his take on the decade is film actor Peter Coyote, whose recently published autobiography, Sleeping Where I Fall, is a candid yet unapologetic, firsthand account of life at the epicenter of the counterculture – the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.

Arriving in the city in 1964 to study creative writing, Coyote soon joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Taking its inspiration from Italian commedia dell’arte, a 16th century form of improvisational theater that used stock situations and characters, the Troupe disseminated a radical social agenda through farcical, collectively written plays, while simultaneously attempting to break down the boundaries between performers and audience.

Coyote also became deeply involved with the Digger movement, a group which evolved out of the Mime Troupe milieu and was dedicated to living with complete authenticity and to manifesting a society that didn’t depend on money – thus its Free Bakery, Free Medical Clinic and Free Store. Coyote eventually left the city and took up a nomadic existence, residing at a series of rural communes and attempting to realize his vision of uniting these disparate communities.

By the mid-’70s, Coyote found himself serving on the California Arts Council, and it wasn’t until he was nearly 40 that he even considered pursuing a career in film, achieving his first major breakthrough with the role of the scientist Keys in Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (1982). Since then, he has acted in more than 60 feature films, using the skills he honed performing guerrilla street theater to create a series of rich, complex characterizations.

Set in 1928 and based on the memoirs of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Cross Creek (1983) is the story of a young woman (Mary Steenburgen) who forsakes marriage and security in order to pursue her ambition to become a writer of Gothic romances. Moving to an solated hamlet in rural Florida, she finds her true subject matter in the hardscrabble lives of its eccentric yet dignified residents. As her love interest, Coyote plays the hotel keeper from the nearest town, a man who persists in his attempt to win Marjorie despite her prickly moodiness and reluctance to surrender her independence, in the type of role that probably helped earn his reputation as "the thinking woman’s sex symbol."

Crooked Hearts (1991) has Coyote as the patriarch of the Warren clan. As a man who easily compartmentalizes different aspects of his life – sound familiar? – his dishonesties reverberate throughout the family system with ultimately tragic consequences.

In Bitter Moon (1992), Roman Polanski’s perverse evisceration of love and relationships – a film imbued with its director’s characteristically pessimistic regard for human nature – Coyote gets a role he can sink his teeth into. When we first encounter him as Oscar, he is human wreckage – wheelchair-bound, caustic, cynical and highly unpleasant, yet inexplicably linked to his sensual, feral young wife. Oscar latches onto a normal, proper and very English chap played by Hugh Grant, forcing him – and, by implication, the viewer – into the role of confidant, a receptacle into which he spills the contents of his sordid tale of a couple bound by extremes of passion and cruelty they are unable to experience with anyone else.

If there is one of Coyote’s films which absolutely must be seen, it is Kika (1994), Pedro Almodovar’s surreal, sexy, Spanish screwball comedy in which Coyote plays a surly American writer named Nicholas Pierce. The plot, which defies description, involves a flighty, motor-mouthed beautician, her statuesque lesbian maid, a porno star serving time for crimes against public health who escapes during a religious procession, and Andrea (Scarface) Caracortada, who manages to make Jerry Springer look like a serious journalist as she presides over her television show, "Today’s Worst," in some of the most outlandish costumes ever to hit the screen. Among the many pleasures afforded by this film is the opportunity to hear Coyote toss off his lines in flawless Spanish.

Recently Coyote has appeared in the sci-fi thriller Sphere (1998) as Barnes, a resolute, no-nonsense engineer in charge of an exploratory team whose members include a mathematician (Samuel Jackson), a biochemist (Sharon Stone) and a psychologist (Dustin Hoffman) who are sent to check out a spacecraft embedded in the ocean floor, with the possibility of encountering an alien life force. The suspense kicks in when things begin to go awry within the claustrophobic confines of their underwater habitat and none of the highly qualified personnel proves able to get a grip on what they’re dealing with.

Coyote has crafted a varied career, playing the gamut from romantic lead to villainous scoundrel. In addition to feature work, he has stayed true to his activist roots by narrating numerous documentaries, especially on Native American and environmental issues, working a balance between commercially viable roles and his personal, political vision that was forged during the cultural turbulence of the ’60s.

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