There are several theories as to why Peter Cohon chose the stage name of Peter Coyote; for his part, the actor is reluctant to discuss an event that apparently was the end result of an evening's experimentation with controlled substances. In the late 1960s, Coyote quit his job as a dockworker to "turn on, tune in and drop out." With hair so long that he could sit on it (by his own admission), Coyote was a "fringie" with such varied organizations as the Grateful Dead and the Hell's Angels, and also worked for a while with a guerilla mime group. After years of deprivation, Coyote dropped back into society in 1975, accepting a job as a drama teacher at a public school. Rapidly approaching middle age, Coyote entered films with 1980's Die Laughing. Throughout the 1980s, he alternated between good guys, villains, and a vaguely defined stereotype known as "loser boyfriends." As the vengeful public prosecutor in The Jagged Edge (1985), Coyote turns out not to be the film's principal heavy; even so, we leave the picture disliking his character more than anyone else's. Leading roles came his way in such films as Exposure (1991), but even here he could not completely escape an aura of slime (his ostensibly heroic character burrows through the seamy underside of Rio in search of a prostitute's murderer). One of Coyote's few unconditionally "nice" roles was as the enigmatic scientist Keys in the champion moneymaker E.T. (1982). In the late 1990s, Coyote published Sleeping Where I Fall, a candid memoir of his years as a cultural drop out.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Was employed as a dock worker and a feather peddler before his film career began.
- Served as chairman of the California State Arts Council from 1976 to '83.
- Made his film debut with an uncredited bit in 1978's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
- Tested for the role of Indiana Jones in 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark. The next year, director Steven Spielberg cast him in a pivotal part in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
- Won a 1993 Pushcart Prize for nonfiction for Carla's Story, a chapter from his memoir Sleeping Where I Fall about his days in the '60s and '70s counterculture.
- Served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1996 and wrote about the experience for the magazine Mother Jones.
- Has a distinctive voice that has brought him a considerable amount of voice-over work, including narrating 2005's Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.
- Worked for Baykeepers, an organization that tracked polluters of the San Francisco Bay.
- Was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest in August 2011.