Ed Begley Jr.: Big green man

VehiclesGlobal ChangeWeatherConservationEd BegleyGlobal Warming

I once tried to pick up Ed Begley Jr.

Before your mind dives for the gutter, it was 2004, not long after Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor, and I rented a Hummer to write about whether it was all that its most famous fancier believed it to be. I invited Begley, connoisseur of energy consumption, to join me. After all, at 6 feet 4-ish, he's the right size for the Hummer's hugeness. But nyet, nein, no way, he said. Never been in one. Wouldn't ruin his perfect record now.

Short of living in a yurt on the Bolivian Altiplano, Begley is as green as they come, certainly for someone inhabiting one of the biggest cities in the First World. His father was the Oscar-winning actor, and he's found his own way onto the small screen and large: from the complex 1980s hospital drama "St. Elsewhere" to "Six Feet Under," and current guest spots on "The New Adventures of Old Christine"; and film roles in droll mockumentaries like "This is Spinal Tap," the handiwork of Begley's friend, Christopher Guest.

Begley's foray into reality TV, "Living with Ed," now on Planet Green, follows the literal power struggle in Casa Begley, in Studio City, where his wife, Rachelle, tries to make peace with life a la Ed, in which you have to pedal a generator bike to power the toaster.

His latest Guest enterprise is a series of TV ads for the 2010 census. Begley is in for the count.

You're about saving the planet. So what's with promoting the census?

The idea is there's a director -- me -- who wants to do a Ken Burns documentary, "Snapshot of America" -- every single man, woman and child in America. We're going to have a big call for everybody, get everybody into makeup and wardrobe -- you can imagine how insane that would be -- and then someone goes: "Don't they know there's another way? The 2010 census. Fill it out."

Why do you care about the census?

It's very important for us in California, and in Los Angeles, to get everybody to sign on to the census, fill out the form, because that's how we're going to get our federal money.

People like Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann have been saying the census is government intrusion.

I think it's sad that it's even viewed as mildly controversial. Despite the facts of the government's purpose in conducting a census, there will be "tea-baggers" who see a plot to send in census workers in black helicopters to count and eventually confiscate their guns. I can't summon a reasonable response to that.

The video of your November set-to with a Fox News show host over global warming has gone viral.

We were talking about energy audits. Energy audits are voluntary. [The host was] going on and on about the intrusion: "Ed Begley, why do you want to come into our homes?" Nobody wants to come into your home. If you want to buy cases of incandescent bulbs and store them in your fallout shelter, give them to your grandchildren, you can. There are no black helicopters, folks. They say this nonsense about "death panels" and other hyperbole -- out-and-out lies.

And that morphed into a donnybrook. What was the fallout?

I got 50 angry e-mails an hour. The thing that made them maddest was when I said, "Don't listen to me, don't listen to this guy, just check out the peer-reviewed science."

You wonder why they had an actor on to talk about global warming; why wouldn't they have a scientist? They've had plenty of "scientists" on who believe it's a hoax. My friends were upset with me. Buck Henry said, "Why do you even go on there?"

I've been [on Fox] for the past decade, and I've never once raised my voice as I did that time. I'm a good little Alan Colmes: Yes, I understand, let's agree to disagree about climate change, but how about we clean up the air and lessen our dependence on Mideast oil and save some money in the bargain, OK? But this time I just couldn't do it.

You're not going to make people believe in climate change by getting loud on Fox; so I'll go back to Plan A, which is being very polite, and it resounds with the red states as well.

Conservative: "To conserve"? This should be their issue -- they're supposed to own the word. I've had a lot of success talking about it that way.

You've seen the polls. Compared with a year or two ago, fewer Americans now think global warming is real.

It's human nature. People don't want to change. People don't want to give up their SUVs. They don't want to turn the thermostat down in the winter and up in the summer. [Deniers] have convinced people there's a lot of controversy. And their big lie is, we'll all go broke if we do this. I haven't gone broke -- I've prospered because of all the energy efficiency I've done. In the years that we cleaned up the air in California, we didn't go broke -- because there's money to be made in clean technology. It's a model for the world.

Your wife is Rachelle Carson. I immediately thought of Rachel Carson, who wrote the seminal environmental book "Silent Spring." Some weird karma?

Her father named her after Rachel Carson because he so admired [Carson]. He was a conservative Republican, like my dad, but he thought it was true that you're going to lose all the birds if you keep putting out poisons.

Until your epiphany, were you just another kid who kept the lights on and wanted to drive a big car?

I was a typical Valley teen, in smoggy Van Nuys. After two decades I was fed up. I'd been a Boy Scout, so I saw nature up close and personal. And my dad was a conservative who liked to conserve, and he turned off the lights and turned off the water and saved string and tinfoil and all that. [I thought] the old man was probably right about a lot of this stuff.

I started recycling, taking the bus. I went to buy an electric car: A guy named Dutch in Reseda; a Taylor-Dunn electric car for $950. When I say electric car, I'm being generous. You're talking about a golf cart with a windshield wiper and a horn.

Critics say Hollywood people talk a good green game but fly in private jets and drive Escalades.

I try not to judge. I love my friends, and I think people are trying to do the best they can, people of every stripe. Focus on what you are doing and try to do more. It's not about being a Luddite and living in a dome in Topanga -- I have friends who do, and I'm proud of them. But I live in the real world. I've got a cellphone and a computer. My No. 1 [transportation] mode is walking, No. 2 is my bike, No. 3 is public transportation, No. 4 is my wife's Prius. I drive to Vegas; I drive to Arizona, I've driven cross-country. But when I cannot do that, I get on a plane and [buy] a carbon offset. It doesn't eliminate pollution, but it puts green electrons into the grid.

When people see you on the bus or the train, do they talk to you?

Some people wave, or come over and whisper: "I don't want to bother you. I thought it was just part of a show. I love that you're actually riding the bus." I thank them for doing it too.

Do you find unexpected support?

In a lot of red states. A lot of them don't believe in global climate change, but they all want to clean up the air in Houston, Bakersfield, L.A.

People come up: "Let me tell you something, Mr. Begley."

I'm going, "Uh-oh."

"I love what you've done. I've got a rain barrel. I tried a gray-water system like you got, and damned if it didn't work."

It's fantastic.

It can get onerous. Finding out, is the food local? Is it organic? Is this or that endangered? People get overwhelmed.

Perhaps it does, if you're trying to do everything. But you look up at Mt. Everest. It's daunting. We do have a Mt. Everest of environmental challenges, but nobody runs up that mountain. You get to base camp, you get acclimated. Not everybody is Sir Edmund Hillary. You climb as high as you can. Focus on recycling at first. Buy an energy-saving light bulb. Home gardening, home composting -- talk about dirt cheap. Just slow down. The environmental crisis is all a result of rushing.

Your daughter Hayden is 10, and her generation's grown up with this awareness.

The poor kid is probably suffering from Stockholm syndrome, identifying with her captors. [But] at her school, kids who are not confined to our bunker in Studio City are [also] very much into all of it.

I don't want you to rat her out, but does she break the rules sometimes?

We'll go to the car wash or roller rink and she'll want those little tiny plastic toys. She does leave the lights on, or the TV on, and leaves the room. We all have our weaknesses.

Ken Burns told me his kids didn't really give him a lot of cred until he was portrayed on "The Simpsons." You've been on twice.

I [also] have two grown kids who are now 31 and 32. I've been in movies with Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, but I was on "The Simpsons," and finally, in the eyes of my children, I was a star. I was on again recently. There's an eclipse and I'm driving along in a solar-powered car, and it stops on the railroad tracks. The train's coming, you think I'm going to die, then the train stops just before hitting me. On the side it says: solar-powered train.

patt.morrison@latimes.com

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interview is online at latimes.com/pattasks.

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