Peter Coyote is the kind of actor you know you've seen before but can't quite place. Hey, wasn't he the guy in ... "E.T." (the NASA agent), "Jagged Edge" (the driven D.A.), "Outrageous Fortune" (the undercover two-timing lover)?

Coyote -- he's not particular how you pronounce it -- wears his roles comfortably. He can be a sexily sensitive hero or a chillingly cruel villain. In "Outrageous Fortune" he was both.

Compelling and convincing, Coyote is as memorable for his lean dark looks as for his seductive voice. It's a little like Henry Fonda's, reedy and warmly resonant, a distinctive voice you could listen to for a long time.

Coyote is a lone wolf who has staked out his own territory. He doesn't fit the Hollywood mold -- and that's the way he likes it. He prefers working in independent films, so as he approaches 45, he's not exactly boffo at the box office.

But "Sworn to Silence," an ABC made-for-TV movie airing Monday, promises to boost his personal ratings. Coyote has appeared in other TV movies in supporting roles and he recently narrated a National Geographic Special, "The Grizzlies," but this is his first starring vehicle.

Although he hadn't seen the film's final cut, Coyote says he's happy with the work he did and delighted to be working with costar Dabney Coleman. "He's just a brilliant actor and he worked harder than any other two actors. You're going to see real friendship here."

Coyote plays a small-town lawyer who teams up with Coleman, a has-been criminal lawyer, to defend a recluse accused of murdering two little girls. The townspeople turn against the lawyers and their families for defending such a heinous criminal.

When their psychopathic client tells them he did indeed murder the children, the defenders are faced with a moral dilemma: To disclose this "privileged information" or to keep the suspect's secret according to the legal principles they have sworn to uphold.

"It's about a real human crisis," says Coyote, in a phone interview from his mountain perch near San Francisco. "Here's a man caught between his instincts for decency -- to tell the children's parents -- and his sworn oath to his client and the Constitution to provide the best defense possible ... I want you to see what this man felt."

It's similar to Coyote's quandary in "Jagged Edge," where as a determined district attorney he cynically withheld evidence to get a conviction. But this lawyer is "another kind of animal," says Coyote. "He's a happy, easy-going, nice guy, with a nice, small-town law practice that he's having fun with. Then this dilemma is pushed unwillingly onto him and it absolutely tears his life apart."

The ending is a sworn secret, of course, but Coyote says the audience will be left with something to think about.

To Coyote, who describes himself as a man who loves ideas and cares passionately about "public dialogue," the movie is especially apropos this year during the Constitution's bicentennial when, he says, "you actually have the Attorney General of the United States saying to branches of the government that you really don't have to pay much attention to the Constitution."

Coyote is opinionated, a California intellectual who enjoys holding forth. "Acting affords the best possible forum ... It's magical and immediate and it's the only grammar available to talk about certain things. Acting is a way of participating in a kind of public dream."

Certainly, after costarring in the raunchy comedy "Outrageous Fortune," Coyote invaded a lot of women's dreams. Although his character, Michael, turns out to be a real rotter, he initially appears as an all-purpose dream lover, successfully seducing both Ivy League Shelley Long and street-smart Bette Midler.

Coyote calls Michael the "McGuffin. He's the engine of the plot, the character that drives the story along." But he's also a warning to women, Coyote says, to guard against the charming and disarming villain who can fool you so completely. The character's shallowness exposes the emptiness of "the feminine equivalent of the male fantasy of the perfect woman -- a gorgeous, supportive man who has absolutely no life of his own."

Coyote is definitely a man with a life of his own. In 1962, long before he became an actor, Coyote changed his name. He started life in New York as Peter Cohon and grew up in rural and suburban Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Although he's reluctant to talk about it now, he intimates that the name change was part of a mystical experience. He didn't choose the name; it chose him. "I just took my real name," he says.

At 23, and just four credits short of earning a master's degree in creative writing ("I discovered I was a lousy poet"), Coyote took to the road.

"I spent 10 years de-educating myself. I wanted to learn how to live with no money, no future and no security. To learn to live by my own wits."

He lived in communes, developed his political consciousness and spent time with the Hell's Angels.

"I was never a Hell's Angel, I want that clear," says Coyote. But he lived with them in San Francisco before they had any criminal connections, he says. "The Hell's Angels then were smart, razor sharp. They liked to live on a life-and-death edge and the weak ones didn't survive."

Those 10 years on the road were an experience most people only dream about, says Coyote, and he doesn't regret a moment. Eventually he hooked up with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a radical, political street theater, and drifted in and out of the local theater scene. In 1975 he was appointed by fellow Zen-follower and then-governor Jerry Brown to head the California Council of the Arts, and he landed back in the mainstream.

"I tell people that I retired at 22 and went back to work at 35."

Despite his recent big movies, Coyote is keener on working in small, independent films, where, he says, "an actor's authority is enhanced, everyone's enthusiastic and everyone's read the script, down to the gaffer."

At an actors' workshop at the recent U.S. Film Festival in Park City, Utah, Coyote said, "I never let money stand in my way. But the funny thing is, you're penalized. I did three independent films in a row. Then it took me three years to get my price back up in Hollywood."

Although money isn't his main concern, he allows that it does free up time. Earlier in his career, he made some statements about accepting success only on his own terms. "I think I was dumb and arrogant," he says now. "There's nothing that doesn't exact dues."

Coyote recently starred in a French-made film, "A Man in Love," which he describes as a convoluted love story. "It was a hard shoot," he jokes. "I had to spend a lot of time naked in bed with Greta Scacchi." The picture has just been named the official French entry at the Cannes Film Festival.

In September, he hopes to direct a film he's written, about a transformation myth. It's a project he developed at the Sundance Institute, Robert Redford's Colorado film workshop, where Coyote is a policy board member.

True to his adoptive name, Coyote says he's happiest in the wilderness. His idea of a great vacation is to fly up to the Arctic Circle and go on a solo walkabout using a map and compass -- that's what he did for fun last August. He also likes to roam the mountains of Wyoming with Marilyn, his wife of 10 years. His family includes a 2 1/2-year-old son and an 18-year-old daughter. He loves reading: "If I could take books orally, I'd do it." He also loves to drive fast in his 1973 BMW or his '64 Dodge Truck.

On screen and off, Coyote is a man who seems very comfortable with himself. "I could have been a lot richer or more famous if I'd done things I won't do," he says. "But I'm not a superstar. I'm just a migrant laborer."