Peter Coyote has a litmus test when it comes to choosing roles. If he reads 10 pages of a script and doesn't find the story intriguing or the dialogue "surprising or alive, quirky or real," then "it's out the window."
That is, unless he's broke. "In which case my sense of discretion is put to sleep and my standards will go to whatever level will pay my rent," muses the youthful and strikingly handsome 58-year-old actor in a recent interview.
"I have alimony and two kids in private school," he says in his velvety voice, well-known from a host of commercials. "Actors have much less choice than you think--unless you are part of the seven or 10 people who at any given time can call their shots. I am, by any stretch, a character actor. We are scrambling for what's left after Brad and Tom and Kevin get their $20 million."
Even though Coyote, who was most recently seen in "Erin Brockovich" as a slick attorney, is extremely busy acting and doing voice-overs--he was the "voice" of this year's Oscar telecast, wearing headsets behind the stage like an academy air traffic controller--these days he considers himself more a writer who supports himself as an actor.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 4, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 16 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Movie opening--A story about Peter Coyote in Wednesday Calendar gave the wrong opening day for his new movie, "The Basket." It opens Friday.
"As I have gotten older and the parts get less interesting, I am putting a lot more energy into writing. I wrote a book [an autobiography, "Sleeping Where I Fall"]."
He also has a film script at Lion's Gate Films that he's slated to direct.
Coyote, relaxing in a expansive room at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, is enjoying afternoon tea. He's in town from his home in the San Francisco Bay Area to chat up his latest film, "The Basket," which opens today. The family drama was shot near Spokane, Wash., by an independent commercial company called North by Northwest Entertainment.
An antiwar story set in the Pacific Northwest in 1918, it focuses on the prejudice encountered by two German orphans who have been adopted by the local doctor and a new schoolteacher who brings the game of basketball to his students, opening their eyes to tolerance in the process.
Coyote plays Martin Conlon, the schoolteacher who is not quite what he seems to be. Witnessing the hostilities of his students toward the Germans, he hopes that basketball will bring his class together. He also decides to use an antiwar German opera called "The Basket" to get his points across regarding tolerance to both his class and the narrow-minded townsfolk.
"What really impressed me about 'The Basket' other than the story is, it is a family film which I didn't think was sappy," says Coyote, who got his first big break in the ultimate family film, "E.T. The Extraterrestrial," as a sympathetic scientist.
"What also impressed me was that this was like a family operation. It was these guys from Spokane who ran an advertising company. When I met them they were so nice that I was suspicious. I thought, no one this nice can make a movie successfully. You have to be partly narcissistic and sociopathic to have the drive to get through all the obstacles [of making movies]. But, in fact, everything committed to the screen was beautiful."
And Coyote reports he had a great time. "It was a wonderful experience," he says, sipping his tea. "It was like being in a large functional family. Usually, I am in a large dysfunctional family. You know something, this could be the future [of filmmaking]. I want to cast my vote on the kind of values I believe in that include not just the content of the film, but the way the film was made."
Rich Cowan, who produced, co-wrote, edited and directed "The Basket,"' had Coyote in mind for the role of Conlon from the outset.
Coyote brought more to the part than Cowan thought possible. "He made that whole character come alive," he says. "Just the way he related with those kids in the classroom. When he was telling the opera story, he would be telling jokes to the kids between takes. He knows a lot of jokes. I wish I knew 100 of the jokes he knows."
Though Privileged Communications is giving the film a national release in 20 markets today, Cowan and North by Northwest test-marketed "The Basket" in August in Spokane, where it ran for a remarkable 34 straight weeks. The film had an impressive 13-week engagement in a smaller town in the center of the state and has grossed more than $300,000.
"It's the kind of film that doesn't have profanity and sex," says Cowan. "There are a lot of people out there seeing films they consider wholesome [like this one] but with a message rather like an 'October Sky' type of film."
Sitting in the lap of luxury at the Peninsula, Coyote's asked if he's changed, or even sold out, after his years as a political activist and hippie from the late '60s through mid-'70s in San Francisco.
"My gang was called the Diggers," recalls Coyote, who freely admits he shot dope for years. "We were the ones who threw all of those free concerts that the Grateful Dead did. We ran the free food clinics and the free crash pads."