It takes a special acting project to get Peter Coyote to leave his home in California, located about one and a half hours north of San Francisco.
“I'm quasi-retired,” said Coyote, 77, in a recent phone interview with TV Fanatic. “I have a pension from my union, and I don't have to work if I don't want to. Unless a project is compelling, I'm just not going to do it because I'd rather be home.”
Coyote's first TV role since a 2015 episode of Blue Bloods is on The Disappearance, a six-hour miniseries that debuts at 10/9c Tuesday, July 9, on WGN America.
The series' titular incident is the disappearance on Anthony (played by Michael Riendeau), a precocious, curious boy who vanishes without a trace on his 10th birthday.
Coyote plays Henry Sullivan, Anthony's grandfather. Rounding out the cast are Aden Young (Rectify) as Anthony's father Luke, Camille Sullivan as Anthony's mother Helen, and Joanne Kelly (Warehouse 13) as Anthony's Aunt Catherine.
Coyote said the show's concept spoke to him.
“I'm a grandfather, and the idea of a grandparent losing his grandchild was very unnerving to me,” he explained. “It drew me deeply into synergy with the character that I'd been called on to play.”
He also was attracted by that rarest of beasts – a well-written script.
“I'm pretty ruthless,” Coyote admitted. “I give a script about 10 pages, and if nothing has surprised me in 10 pages, I just throw it out. This hooked me right away.”
Coyote described his character Henry, a retired judge, as “kind of a complicated ball of wax.”
As the miniseries opens, Henry is in transition. His beloved wife Maggie recently died, and he moved in with his son Luke and his family. The prickly man is somewhat estranged from Luke and his daughter Catherine.
Anthony is the only ray of light in Henry's life.
“He has this very pure, very uncomplicated relationship with his grandson, where you see him be funny and amusing and playful,” Coyote said.
Henry is used to being in charge, so he tries to run the investigation.
“Henry takes things into his own hands because he's convinced nobody is doing enough but him,” Coyote recalled. “This may be his anxiety or his arrogance as a judge. He begins to get in the way of the police.”
Anthony disappears while on a treasure hunt that Henry set up, something for which he eventually blames himself.
“At first, he doesn't, because he's fixated on what could have happened to his grandson,” Coyote explained. “He didn't yet have the clues that there might be something to do with him. But as the case begins to express itself and little clues and notes are given, it starts to be an underlying worry.
"Then there will be a revelation late in the series as to what exactly his culpability was. And it's extremely damning for him and almost impossible for him to live with.”
After graduating from Grinnell College in 1964, Coyote (nee Peter Robert Cochon) moved west and embedded himself in the counter-culture scene.
He joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a radical street theater, and helped to found the Diggers, an anarchist improv group.
He didn't even get his Screen Actors Guild card until age 39. Since then, his acting career has taken a familiar path.
“I had an extraordinary 10 years as an actor doing lead roles all over the world and it was pretty great,” He reminisced.
“But in very short order I was 50, and I was relegated to character actor. You don't get the girl, the checks are smaller, but you do get to work all the time. That was fine for another almost 20 years.”
Now he admits he has no other acting projects in the works.
“Once I hit my 60s, the opportunities just got really slim, in the sense of being uninteresting,” he said. “I could make a living humping donkeys in Tijuana, but I really don't want to do that.”
Coyote has enjoyed a wide-ranging career acting on stage, film, and TV, narrating, and writing. He earned an Emmy Award in 2015 as Outstanding Narrator for Ken Burns' The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.”
So what's his preferred artistic venue? Writing. He's finishing up his third book right now and is working on a book of poems. He and his partner are writing a pilot for a TV series.
“Every time you want to be an actor in the movies, you need to get 80 people together, and you need to put up with lights and cables and technical difficulties,” Coyote opined. “Out of all the time that you spend, you might act 10-15 minutes a day.
"I prefer writing. I'm not responsible to anyone else but myself. There's a direct shot between what I want to say and the expression of it.”
For someone with many highbrow credits on his resume, Coyote still watches quite a bit of TV.
“Every night at 8:30, I turn my brain off, and I turn the TV on,” he said.
Among his favorites are Barry, Fauda, Fleabag, and the French series Spiral, Call My Agent, and The Bureau.
“Many of these are foreign. I often find the IQ there a little higher,” Coyote lamented.
Be sure to tune into The Disappearance Tuesday, July 9 on WGN America to watch Coyote bring the complicated Judge Henry to life.
Dale McGarrigle is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter.