MONTREAL – There’s something about Peter Coyote’s voice that simply makes you listen.
The U.S. actor, having just narrated “The Vietnam War” for award-winning documentarian and frequent collaborator Ken Burns, sat with four journalists about a year ago on location at a campground outside Montreal to discuss his role in the six-part miniseries “The Disappearance,” a psychological thriller premiering Sunday on CTV.
The 75-year-old spoke, as well, about his own adventures as a monk, mime, Zen Buddhist, actor and activist. The hour flew by.
Coyote plays former prosecutor and Judge Henry Sullivan, patriarch of a fractured family. The Sullivans are reeling after Henry’s beloved young grandchild Anthony, played by Michael Riendeau of Ottawa, goes missing in the middle of a birthday treasure hunt. Aden Young and Camille Sullivan play his separated parents. Micheline Lanctot, Joanne Kelly and Kevin Parent also star.
“I can’t think of anything worse than the possibility of outliving one of my children,” says Coyote, who has two adult offspring.
When news of the abduction hits the Sullivans, “everybody’s skin is sandblasted off,” he says. “We’re just raw nervous systems. Everybody deals with it as best they can.”
The story began as a francophone project, with scripts written by Normand Daneau and Genevieve Simard. Productions Casablanca started developing it in 2011.
“The writers were a couple with kids who had split up — it is their story,” says executive producer Sophie Parizeau.
After failing to land a suitable broadcast partner in Quebec, scripts were translated into English, shopped outside the province and eventually sold to Bell Media.
Camille Sullivan notes that the family in “The Disappearance” is “very passionate, they’re vocal, they’re drinkers, smokers. You see a spiciness that you just don’t get with purely anglophone stories.”
The producers started looking for an elegant actor in his seventies who could play the retired judge. “Peter Coyote was a good choice for us,” says Parizeau.
He was tracked down at his farm north of San Francisco and sent the first two scripts. He found they passed what he calls his “must surprise me in the first 10 pages” test.
Young, who recently starred in the U.S. cable series “Rectify,” also loved the scripts and read three in one sitting.
“There are so many wonderful twists in this,” says the Toronto-born Young, who grew up in Australia. “The red herrings are actually clues along the way and everything leads to everything. I thought it was really smart writing.”
Coyote also liked that it was a limited run series.
“To me it’s a kind of ideal form,” he says, bemoaning the number of comics-inspired franchises at the cinema. “The best writers have gravitated to television.”
Coyote, who calls himself “a Zen Buddhist student first, actor second,” has worked extensively with European directors including Roman Polanski on “Bitter Moon” and Pedro Almodovar on “Kika.”
“The Europeans have a much clearer idea of who I am and they enjoyed all the ambiguities of my personality that the Americans found troublesome. Americans like to know if you’re a good guy or a bad guy —as if there’s a difference.”
He likes Canadians too, calling us, “grown up Americans.”
The chance to work in Montreal and brush up on his French — which he practised as often as he could with the cast and crew — was another reason he took the job.
A practical man, the actor also felt that the part of the grandfather might only call for “a couple of days work, it won’t be too hard.”
When he arrived on set and read the final four episodes, however, he realized it’d be harder than expected: The action shifts to plenty of night shoots, in a Montreal winter.
“I thought to myself, ‘Oh, you want to kill an old Jew, this is how to do it.'”
Parizeau was glad Coyote decided to tough it out: “He’s a good story teller, eh?”
— Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.