peter coyote

The Golden Voice Behind All Those Ken Burns Documentaries

Peter Coyote.
Peter Coyote. Photo: Miikka Skaffari/FilmMagic

What would a Ken Burns documentary be without its measured, authoritative narration? In The West, The National Parks, Prohibition, The Dust Bowl, The Roosevelts, The Vietnam War, The Mayo Clinic, and now Country Music, actor Peter Coyote delivers hours of often dense, complex text — full of facts, figures, quotes, and grand unifying ideas — in a manner that Burns refers to as “God’s stenographer.” His calm, cowboy-around-a-campfire timbre is basically the voice of America, at least within the orbit of PBS.

Generations of kids first met Coyote as the embodiment of authority — he played Keys, the head scientist in E.T. the Extra Terrestrial — but the man himself has lived a Zelig-like life. Growing up as a secular Jew with communist relatives during the McCarthy era, Coyote was an early convert to political activism and the counterculture. “I saw grown-ups weeping in my living room,” he says. “Men and women who were broken by lies the government was telling.” As a young man, he was invited into Kennedy’s White House after staging a protest against nuclear testing during the Cuban missile crisis, threw himself headlong into a decade of drugs, Hell’s Angels, and commune living, narrowly escaped being drafted to Vietnam by pretending to be a cold-blooded marauder, helped run the California State Arts Council for eight years, and then decided to become an actor. These days, he’s also an ordained Zen Buddhist priest.

Coyote has lent his voice to a plethora of ads and documentaries over the decades, but his decades-long relationship with Burns is something special. Vulture spoke with both men about Coyote’s unequaled voice, their unique recording process, and how they handle political disagreements.

Peter, how did you get into the narration game?
Peter Coyote: I was broke after ten years in the counterculture and I needed a way to make some money. I wasn’t an actor at that time, so I made a comedic CD of myself talking in about 15 different accents, telling people how unreliable and unhirable this guy Peter Coyote was. I walked it around to every ad agency in San Francisco and I started getting work for ads. I got my first Screen Actors Guild card in 1979, and by 1980 I was making five-digit money. After E.T. and Jagged Edge and Outrageous Fortune, I did a lot of ads — General Motors, Chevy, Cadillac, Tylenol, New York Life. Then I did a great movie for Alex Gibney, comparing American labor practices to Japanese labor practices. That may have been one of the first documentaries that really synced totally with my politics and my ideas. I don’t know in what year it was that I did The West [Editor’s note: It was 1996], but that began my relationship with Ken.

Ken, is it project-specific when you choose to use Peter?
Ken Burns: Yes it is. I would ask him for every project except those that are subject-wise African-American. There’s a process: We would prefer that Peter not see the script and he prefers not to see the script. And we do not run the film while we’re recording. We get about 95 percent of the way through editing, and then we say, “Time for Peter.” An episode might run an hour and 50 minutes. Peter reads it cold. And more often than you could possibly believe, that first take is often terrific. It’s usually two, three takes. I’m sure it now drives him insane. I always say, “Perfect. One more for the insurance company.”

Is it more than just an easy paycheck?
Peter Coyote: Nobody does a documentary to get rich. They do it because they really care about it. There are a number of them I do for free, because I want to help the idea get currency. There are some of them I do because it’s like a master’s degree in a subject. And then Ken’s really stand above and apart like a Ph.D. in the subject. The challenge of taking the reader through complex sentences, with lots of clauses and subclauses, is something I have an idiot savant’s talent to be able to do. I have a very wide peripheral vision. I can see when a comma is coming, I can see when a period is coming and I have to dismount. I understand what I’m reading — fully. Very often, we’ll stop and have discussions about something in the text, or I’ll tell him some little historical piece of relevance that I’ve uncovered.

Ken Burns: He feels like Zelig. There’s rarely been a project that, when we’re taking a break or between sessions, he doesn’t regale us with stories of the people that our film is about, or experiences that he had in a national park, or stuff that he did during the Vietnam War. I mean, he’s the intersection of the second half of the 20th century and American culture and life.

Peter Coyote as “Keys” in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Photo: Archive Photos/Getty Images

When you work with Peter, are you just looking for his natural speaking voice, or do you ask him for a certain tone?
Ken Burns: We want him to be “God’s stenographer,” as [late NBC Nightly News anchor] John Chancellor told me after I’d spent an hour or so breaking his very understandable broadcast [habits]. He was our narrator of Baseball back in the early ’90s. After a while he said, “Oh, you want me to God’s stenographer?” I cracked up and I said, “Yes, John, that’s exactly it.” It’s not soft-spoken. It’s not damped-down. It has all the meaning. All of the import, none of the ego.

How much of voice-over work is performance? Is it more than simply reading in a compelling way?
Peter Coyote: No, I don’t think it is. As a matter of fact, the only area where Ken and I have any kind of instinctive difference is my people are Jews and we’re minor key people. Ken is not. He wants zero performance. But, of course, he also wants me to reflect the gravity of the text when it’s grave, or catch an ironic note when it’s there. I don’t feel like I’m doing a performance. I always do them cold. I never read the scripts in advance.

I can see the value in getting a gut reaction.
Peter Coyote: It’s like Allen Ginsberg said, “First thought, best thought.” The first time I read the text, I have the most vivid images. Those images actually control my voice. I’m not manipulating. It’s not my ego or my small mind. It’s fealty to the images.

Your narration is gentle but authoritative, which is really interesting, since this is your first encounter with the script.
Peter Coyote: It’s because I’m completely assured about what’s going on in my mental and emotional life. I’m not reading the text and consciously translating it and saying, “How can I reflect this in my tonality and my emotion?” As I’m reading, each sentence is just creating an image. I’m not trying for an effect. My voice is automatically responding to the images in my brain or in my body.

Do you ever get emotional?
Peter Coyote: Sometimes. I grew up in a family with a lot of socialists and some communists and people who dedicated their lives to the common good, so when I was reading Roosevelt and watching the New Deal come into place, I was quite moved. But when I got to Vietnam, which was something I was intimately engaged with, it was very hard not to let rage or disgust creep out. When you read, “Five presidents knew the war was unwinnable and couldn’t find a way to get out and save face, and so they let 50,000 [U.S. soldiers] die and 3 million Asians die …” I mean, those are words I would like to spit. But if I do that, then I’m putting my foot in the small of your back and I’m taking your reaction away from you. My discipline is to harness my own feelings, so that you have free rein to yours.

You’re attempting to be as dispassionate as possible?
Peter Coyote: I’m attempting to be as transparent as possible. I don’t want you to pay attention to the beautiful quality of my voice, or my articulation, or anything like that. I want to just be there to serve that film. Really, man, I’m a Jew with an animal name who reads good. These guys have been out there for years working, fact-checking, thinking. And there are many ways in which I’m far to the left of Ken. The Vietnam series began by saying: “The war was begun by good people for good motives and went bad.” My leftie friends went ballistic. “Good people? They’re fascist bastards! How can you do that?” And my rejoinder was: “There are about six or seven truly radical analyses of Vietnam in documentary film, and both people who saw them loved them. But Ken Burns got the entire country to sit around and learn that five presidents lied to them, that generals lied to them, we invaded a sovereign country, and we killed 3 million people.” If I had come in with “The fascist bastards started their war …” the majority would have changed the channel. I’d like [Ken] to hit harder sometimes. But he’s the master. And in fairness, he gets the Koch brothers to pay for it.

Ken, it’s not just the volume of words you give him, right? It’s the density and complexity and pronunciations.
Ken Burns: We have phonetic guides for me, as a scratch narrator, and for him. More often than not, he knows in advance how to pronounce something. Sometimes we’ll decide how French you want to be in a pronunciation, how Spanish you want to be, how local you want to be. Are we going to say “hollos” or “hollers” in Country Music? “Missoura” or “Missouri”? These are our big, huge questions. We’re often finding that one reading of his might be longer than mine. We’ll either open him up — that is to say, insert space between phrases and breaths — or we’ll cut the picture differently.

That reminds me of Steven Spielberg recutting the E.T. finale to fit John Williams’s music.
Ken Burns: In the case of Williams, who’s such a gifted composer in his own right, the integrity of the original composition is so intense that you’re a fool, as a filmmaker, if you don’t surf that wave. Why would you have him adjust it when it’s the most beautiful wave? You’ve just got to get back on your surfboard. In Country Music, Merle Haggard said, “It’s like things that we believe in and can’t see, like dreams and songs and souls.” And later on, Wynton says, “Music is the only art form that’s invisible.” So why not take advantage of, in this case, the music of that narrator?

It seems like he’s the voice of America for you.
Ken Burns: I’ve always looked for a voice — quite frankly, and there’s no ego involved in this — that’s close to my voice. Not in timbre, not in sound, but in meaning. And no one has come closer to my voice in meaning than Peter. No one.

Peter, you’re a pretty political person. What was the initial spark that made you that way?
Peter Coyote: Growing up in the ’40s and the ’50s, my family were secular Jews. We couldn’t join the country club a block from our house. I never got over the fact that I’d be playing with my friends and they’d say, “Hey, let’s go swimming!” and I couldn’t go. No one ever said, “Wait, why don’t we do something that Pete can do?” So there’s a lesson in politics right there. Then, in the McCarthy period, my mother’s cousin was the first man fired from the New York City school system for being a communist. I saw grown-ups weeping in my living room, men and women who were broken by lies the government was telling. Then came the civil-rights movement, and here were these well-dressed, well-spoken African-Americans being set on by dogs and firehoses and white peckerwood mouth-breathers for trying to have a crappy sandwich at the Woolworth’s. When you looked at that, you had to take a side. If you didn’t take a side, you were taking a side. And then I was involved with a protest that went outside the White House, called the Grinnell 14 — first [protest] group in history that was ever invited in the White House. So I began to experience what a few people could do by making a commitment, by being well-mannered, well-spoken, knowing their song before they started singing. I’ve never wanted to disenfranchise myself since.

How has all of that shaped you as an actor, or as a storyteller?
Peter Coyote: I think of myself as a writer who makes his living as an actor — or who made his living, because I’m sort of retired. By the time I started acting, I had a family and I had real economic pressures on me. I didn’t feel like I had the leeway to do what I would have liked to do, which would be to go to the London Academy of Dramatic Arts, which turns out the greatest English-speaking actors on Earth. My inability to get that training left me with certain insecurities. I was not always as bold as I should have been because of that, and I really didn’t seek out challenges because of that. I also had the idea, not to make an excuse, but I better make my offstage life my first priority. So I did, and I paid a tax on my career for that. I’m extremely grateful for having done 160 films and working with great directors like Polanski and Walter Hill and Steven Spielberg and Pedro Almodóvar. But it was never the source of my joy and fulfillment. That’s just the truth. One felt authentic, and one didn’t.

You’re also an ordained Buddhist priest. How does that affect the way you respond to the conditions of the world?
Peter Coyote: It complicates it. The core truth of Buddhism is that everything is interdependent. There’s no “you” without sunlight, without oxygen, without water, without microbes in the soil that grow your food, without pollinating insects that help it, without birds to eat the pests. So the biggest thing that I learned — that served me first in politics with [California governor] Jerry Brown — was that I’m made of the same stuff as the people I abhor, or whose behavior I abhor. I’d like to think that I’m this pure, wonderful warrior with no negative human potentiality, but I’m made of the same stuff as Hitler and Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan. So when I speak to people, I have to do it without being judgmental. We’re the same animal. That, to me, is a very Buddhist way of looking at things: to strive for the fact that I have shadows, I have anger, I have jealousy, I have envy, I have greed. I have everything that my opponent does. My job as a priest, certainly, but as any Buddhist, is to monitor my internal life to make sure it doesn’t leak. When you do that, and when you fix your intention on compassion with the force of habit, then you can trust yourself to be spontaneous without worrying about what’s going to come out. I have a lot of trouble with people in my own political persuasions, because they like to pretend that they’re all good and all the evil is out there. They’re screaming at people for peace and they don’t see the contradiction.

This interview has been edited and condensed from separate conversations with Peter Coyote and Ken Burns.

The Golden Voice Behind All Those Ken Burns Documentaries