Rooted to the Cause : Ed Begley Jr. shines in a world in which some stars are environmentalists only when the cameras are on. He lives what he preaches.
The parking lot filled early for last month’s festive ribbon-cutting ceremonies at the Burbank Recycling Center’s education exhibit. In Los Angeles, it seems, even the recyclers and environmental activists have to get around by fossil-fuel burning automobile.
Everyone, that is, but Ed Begley Jr., the event’s celebrity host. Although he arrived a few minutes late, parking was no problem. Begley was test-riding a bright green electric bike, the new EV Warrior, as a favor for its manufacturer.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Apr. 21, 1996 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 21, 1996 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 4 View Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Misidentification--Eco-Home, the environmental demonstration home in Los Feliz, was misidentified in the Ed Begley Jr. profile in the April 14 Life & Style.
Looking L.L. Bean-correct in a blue blazer and jeans, the actor shook a few hands, then picked up the microphone to welcome the guests in a booming baritone:
“I’ve been recycling since 1970. Most of us have stuff we’d like to throw away, but where is ‘away’? The landfill? Landfills serve us the way the portrait served Dorian Gray: They allow us to cavort in an orgy of consumerism until the final day of reckoning, which is today or tomorrow, depending on where you live!”
It was a role as comfortable as an old shoe for Begley, who needed neither notes nor prompting. Ask anybody who knows him for a quick description and you’ll get the same cliche: “He walks his talk.”
Hyphenates are a common species in Hollywood, which abounds with producer-directors, writer-producers and actor-waiters. But Ed Begley Jr. has blended two seemingly contradictory worlds. He bicycles to industry meetings in Beverly Hills, pulls up at Oscar parties in his electric car and lives in a house with solar panels on the roof, smack in the heart of Studio City. An unlikely modern-day Thoreau, he has chosen to “live lightly on the land” in the city that epitomizes conspicuous consumption for most of the world. For Begley, 46, such economizing is a never-ending process. His activities and his philosophy raise this wonderment: How far will he go?
He has been labeled an “environmentally conscious actor” since early in his career, when his stand-up nightclub act included environmental material. One bit was a weather report in which he appeared in a gas mask and intoned: “Ozone sulfide and radiation levels will be down considerably tomorrow--that’s good news for you mothers. Plan to dress your children in light asbestos sportswear. . . .”
In intervening years, as he compiled a voluminous resume of movie and television roles--including six Emmy nominations in the ‘80s as the gauche Dr. Victor Ehrlich in NBC’s hit series “St. Elsewhere"--Begley has slowly but steadily shaped his life until the priorities have been reversed.
“I estimate I spend about 80% of my time now on environmental work and the rest on acting,” he says. “I’m lucky to be able to pick and choose.”
His environmental zeal drives almost every aspect of his life, from serving on the boards of high-profile environmental groups to retrofitting his two-bedroom house until it is almost totally solar-powered.
Begley’s activism is viewed with a respectful bemusement in Hollywood’s social world, where his dogged alternative transportation habits are so out of sync with the town’s limousine culture.
“Ed is one of those rare people who is absolutely passionate without being angry at everybody who isn’t,” says Marc Merson, producer of this weekend’s Eco Expo, where Begley was due to introduce the transportation conference. “He will not fly, which is somewhat inconvenient in this era.”
The actor insists he’s not out to reform the world. “I think it’s important to have some spiritual basis for your life,” he says. “Otherwise, it’s just about accumulating things. I’ve never seen a hearse with a luggage rack on top: What in God’s name is the point?”
Environmentalism has long been a chic cause in the entertainment industry (think of Sting, Ted Danson and Robert Redford, for starters), but the names of celebrities who actually live their commitment falls off fairly fast after Dennis Weaver’s recycled-tire house and producer David Zucker’s electric car.
“Ed carries a force of the celebrity and is willing to use it to the nth degree to support environmental causes,” says Julia Russell, director of Eco House in Los Feliz, which demonstrates sustainable living in the city. “I think he actually allows his commitment to the environment to impinge on his personal life and well-being. I’ve seen him become exhausted and drained from it.”
Begley, who bicycles with Mayor Richard Riordan and keeps in touch with Vice President Al Gore, is a genuine hero in the movement. “You can walk through an airport with him any place in the world and people recognize him,” says longtime friend Bobby Kennedy Jr., an environmental lawyer. “Ed has a greater sense of social obligation than anyone I know: He’s like a West Point cadet who gets up every morning and says, ‘Reporting for duty.’ ”
Despite his somewhat earnest public persona, the 6-foot-3-inch actor veers unexpectedly between statesman and stand-up comedian in casual conversation. As one of a core of celebrities who shows up regularly for progressive causes, he says, “I get literally a half-dozen requests a day--American Diabetes Society, Multiple Sclerosis, Debutantes for Peace, the Tofu Guild, the Geodesic Dome Society. . . .”
While his nerdy tortoise-shell glasses and penchant for goofy jokes have cast him naturally into such movies as “Shaggy Dog,” he can cite such serious roles as the 1994 miniseries “When Lions Roared” with John Lithgow and Bob Hoskins.
The actor can discuss environmental deterioration without stopping, picking up steam like a seasoned salesman, and the topic he returns to like a leitmotif is transportation.
He traces the region’s problems to the dismantling of the advanced red-car trolley system in the 1940s to make way for cars. “The automobile was our dearest lover and now it’s a fatal attraction of the worst order,” declares the actor, who thinks he is the rare environmentalist around who actively supports the Metro Rail subway: “Give me a shovel and I’ll help dig, if you’ll put it in my neighborhood!”
He chaired the Transit Advisory Committee for the now-defunct Rapid Transit Authority and knows the bus system inside out, but he also understands the power of car culture. “People are resistant to change. They find solace in their one little bit of quiet time in their metal cocoon called an automobile.”
Still, he shrugs, with millions of people heading to California in the next 10 years, we are going to need it all--the Red, the Green, the Blue lines; a bike plan; more electric vehicles and more buses.
Life in L.A. without an automobile poses inconveniences, but Begley, pressed to confess the downside, insists there are only “adjustments” and, for him, even benefits.
Because he has pared his expenses, for example, he can be more selective about roles. Last year, he starred in “The Cryptogram,” a new play by David Mamet, whom he has long admired. The play, which opened in Boston and moved to off-Broadway, demanded a 6-month commitment.
“If I’d had the big house and the chauffeur and the chef and the channeler and the spirit guide, I couldn’t have done it.” Even without all those Hollywood embellishments, he adds, “I feel like I still have too much stuff. I’d like my life to be much simpler and I will get there. It is a process.”
Wearing shorts and a “Recycle” T-shirt, Begley welcomes a visitor to his one-story house, tucked onto a corner lot shaggy with flowering and edible plants, citrus and banana trees. Surplus lemons are lined up on the peeling wooden fence for neighbors to pick up.
It’s a 1930s-style duplicated all over the Valley. Only the photovoltaic panels on the roof hint that this ordinary structure is also a super-efficient laboratory for conservation. (“He’s generating more electricity than we are,” marvels Eco House’s Russell.) Begley, who hasn’t stopped at a gas station in six years and estimates that his annual utility bill is $50, doesn’t think of the house in terms of a model: “It’s a simple little structure that meets my needs.”
He remembers smoggy Los Angeles summers from his childhood, which was divided between New York and Los Angeles depending on where his actor-father, Ed Begley Sr., was working. Although his father was a popular character actor, they lived in simple houses. “My dad had been through the Depression and he was a conservative Republican, which I’m not. But he took ‘conserving’ literally, and he taught me a lot in this area.”
After his father won the Academy Award in 1962 for “Sweet Bird of Youth,” they moved lock, stock and barrel to California, and Ed Jr. became a Valley boy.
He essentially was raised by his father, and it wasn’t until he was 16 and found his birth certificate to get his driver’s license that he was stunned to learn that the woman who had died when he was 7 was not his biological mother. “She was my stepmother: My real mother left when I was a year old. Her name was Allene Sanders, an actress, and she had been a family acquaintance.” Despite the shock at the time, he says, he since has become good friends with her.
Begley got his first acting job at 17, but he also learned to be a cameraman and combined the two until about 1970. Never a leading man, he graduated from “whiz-kid best friend” roles to what he describes as “small but noticeable parts.”
But the role of Victor Ehrlich in “St. Elsewhere” was a defining point. The much-praised hospital series ran for six years and was a “tremendous bit of security,” he says. A fellow cast member, Bill Daniels, gave him good advice: “Hey, kid, appreciate this while it is happening.”
So Begley did, just concentrating on the moment. His more recent movie and television roles have been eclectic, including a Discovery channel show highlighting environmental good news. Upcoming for Earth Day, on April 22, is a Disney channel special he is co-hosting with Dana Delany.
In the living room, where his telephone rings almost nonstop, one wall is covered with racks of tapes and CDs, and on the mantle is a trophy: The American Comedy Award for 1988’s “The Accidental Tourist,” the funniest supporting male in a motion picture.
He leads the way to the tree-shaded backyard, breaking off some fragrant mint to spice up the tea served in TreePeople mugs and talking about his family. His 13-year marriage to Ingrid Taylor ended in divorce in 1989. He’s still good friends with his ex-wife, who has since remarried and lives in Ojai, where she’s a travel agent. And Begley is devoted to their children, Amanda, 18, and Nicholas, 17, who lives with his father.
Begley’s environmental passion was kindled on Earth Day 1970 when he joined Friends of the Earth and, “smitten with [founder] David Brower,” started reading the group’s newspaper. “They were talking about ozone depletion, the collapse of fisheries, nuclear contamination and a lot of other things that have come to pass,” says Begley, who was persuaded to start composting, recycling and buying biodegradable material.
He remembers with amusement his first electric car in 1970, a Taylor-Dunn that was a kind of golf cart with a tiller instead of a wheel. “I drove it to the market and would occasionally venture from the Valley into Hollywood. The range was so limited I would have to plug it in before I could get home.”
His public activism dates from 1986 when friends Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda recruited him for a star-studded campaign caravan backing Proposition 65, the toxic labeling measure. Begley’s research habits served him well. “I turned out to be the only one who could pronounce ‘hexavalent chromiun’ [a hazardous substance that was being dumped in the ocean by industries]. I was asked to be a spokesperson.”
He was invited to join the board of the League of Conservation Voters and over the next few years found himself spending less time acting. “I liked getting on the bus,” he says. “I liked the fact that my life was starting to have more consequence.”
Simultaneously, he chose to retrofit his house, a job that took about two years, doing most of the work himself. Except for the solar panels, a $50,000 investment, the rest is straight out of Home Depot.
“A lot of this is nickel-and-dime stuff--anybody can do it,” he says happily, zipping down steep cement steps to a cellar where his water heater is wrapped in a heat-saving blanket (“only $5"). Back upstairs, he points out the energy-saving thermostat in the hallway, the compact fluorescent lightbulbs throughout (“I’ve only had to replace one in eight years”) and the double-pane windows. Lined under his desk in military precision is a row of recycling bins for colored paper, white paper, chip cardboard and junk mail.
(His frugality has been documented. Opposing a new landfill before the board of supervisors, he once boasted he could get an entire week of household trash into his car’s glove compartment and, when challenged, he actually achieved it, though it took some shoving.)
Just outside the back door, he plunges a shovel into a pile of compost heap debris and turns up some crumbly, rich earth--great for the tomatoes--then adjusts a cover on a lettuce bed and points out cabbage, Swiss chard and a hedge of cherry trees. “I live off this stuff,” he says. “Even the toyon berries--they can be roasted and taste like grape nuts.”
In the garage, his 1991 VW Rabbit, converted to an electric car, is being recharged--he gets 55 miles on a charge--and a mountain bike and road bike sit nearby. Then the kicker: Even his stationery exercise bike is hooked into the power supply, so that he’s actually generating power as he pedals!
There is such a thing as being too intense, and Begley’s accelerating activism finally forced him to declare overkill in November. “I was dancing at too many weddings,” he says ruefully of his membership on nine boards.
Not only was he involved in national environmental groups and causes, he had been appointed by Riordan to be Los Angeles environmental affairs commissioner and to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. It was a perverse form of over-consumption, he allows, assuming mock frenzy: “I was trying to have it all: Give me this! Yeah, I can do that! I want to be on that board too, I want another one! More!”
Overwhelmed, he resigned from five boards, including the commission and the conservancy, whose bureaucratic demands were a terrible match for his energy level. “I’ve become my own worst nightmare,” he said in his resignation letter, “a petty bureaucrat shuffling papers as the ancient forests are destroyed.”
The resignations have not lessened his loyalty. “They do such good work! We’d have malls all over these hills by now if it wasn’t for the Santa Monica conservancy, and I get down on my knees and thank God for the day it was born and for the leadership of [Executive Director] Joe Edmonston.”
He expects now to be active without being a paper jockey. He is still on the boards of four major environmental organizations, including the Environmental Media Assn., which bridges both of Begley’s worlds.
From its original goal of getting environmental messages on the screen, the EMA has broadened its focus to environmental practices within the industry itself, Begley says. “We would be having these rain-forest benefits on sound stages that had been responsible for the loss of 400 hectares a year of wood for making sets. It was ridiculous!”
As an actor-activist, Begley recognizes that his credibility rests on being well-informed, and he has a basic prescription: “Sound science!”
He doesn’t read novels anymore, but soaks up environmental information. Global warming, soil loss, overconsumption, ozone depletion, biodiversity losses--Begley can rattle off data on any of the planet’s simmering catastrophes. He’s an energetic researcher, dragging out for evidence an arsenal of bedside reading: EPA advisories, the magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Council, bulletins from the Native Forest Council and Heal the Bay, newsletters from the Audubon Society, Global Pesticide Campaign and Real Goods News.
“I am not afraid of information,” he says. “I will listen to Rush Limbaugh. He says there isn’t any environmental problem, so I listen to that.”
Just thinking about Limbaugh sets off a typical monologue: “Rush Limbaugh says that Newsweek and Time are just trying to scare us and sell magazines, and there is no problem with ozone depletion, and Mt. Pinatubo caused more depletion of the ozone layer than all the man-made CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons] and I think, jeez, maybe he is right.
“So I call my friends who have PhDs in atmospheric research and are not just actors or personalities like Rush Limbaugh and I are. And they say, ‘No, he is wrong because the sulfuric acid that comes from a volcano, from Mt. Pinatubo, is soluble in water so it got rained out, it never reached the upper atmospheres. No, what has happened up there is because of CFCs.’ They have tested it, they’ve been up there with a U-2 plane. . . .”
In a media-driven age in which celebrities show up for worthy-cause news conferences and then vanish, Begley’s tenacity stands out.
Bobby Kennedy Jr., who works with the Natural Resources Defense Council, spent several days last summer with Begley at a sustainable-forest conference in Clayquot Sound, British Columbia. “It was day after day of seminars on alternative economics, sustainable lumbering, fisheries, non-lumber plants, tourism,” Kennedy recalls. “Not all the speakers were firebrands. A lot of people were sleeping and a lot of people left. Not Ed. I love him.”
Away from the rain forest and back in Hollywood, Begley has an active social life. His actor friends include Jeff Goldblum and Michael Richards, whom he met when they were Valley College students. Neil and Shelley Rhodes, both conservators at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, are among the “civilian” couples he sees frequently, and he is usually “dating someone.” He and actress Rachelle Carson recently split up after a 2-year relationship.
Bicycling over the Sepulveda Pass keeps him in great shape. “I don’t have good depth perception and I can’t play ball and I can’t play pool. But I have some things I do: I snorkel, I scuba dive, I ride a bike, I roller skate, I ski--things that keep me active.”
He also has a writing project underway: a play about the life of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. Begley got to know and respect Chavez working with him on pesticide issues and was a pallbearer at his funeral.
Begley ends his home tour in a steamy greenhouse. His newest project is growing most of his vegetables from seed, to avoid any connection with pesticides.
“What I’m trying to do is make another choice,” he says, examining some tiny lettuce sprouts. “I want to achieve self-sufficiency. Some people plan for self-sufficiency by accumulating mutual funds. I wanted to eliminate the need for income. I invested in a windmill near Mohave--I’m not going to buy something like Exxon stock.”
What he sees ahead is a society bottoming out on its orgy of consumption: “If things made us happy, there would be nothing but happy people living in Bel-Air and unhappy people living in the bush.”
Ed Begley Jr. seems quite content.
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Ed Begley Jr.
Background: Actor and Hollywood’s most dedicated environmental activist, serving on national boards of the Earth Communications Office, Environmental Media Assn., Environmental Research Foundation and Walden Woods Project.
Passion: “It’s not that I’m doing so much, it’s that I’m trying to do so little,” he says of his solar, recycled, electric-car lifestyle.