Ed Begley Jr. is an actor and environmental activist whose work spans the gamut in terms of genre and cross-generational appeal. His breakthrough role was as Dr. Victor Ehrlich on the hit TV show St. Elsewhere, which earned him six Emmy nominations. Since then, his career has included film, television and stage work, and his latest project, the reality show Living With Ed on Planet Green, represents a new stage. We caught up over the phone and discussed the projects he’s working on and his environmental plan that makes it simple for any consumer to go green and save money while doing so.
Living With Ed follows the story of Ed and his wife, actress and Pilates instructor Rachelle Carson Begley, and their self-sufficient solar-powered home near Los Angeles. Along the way, Ed and Rachelle provide viewers with information on how to incorporate green living into their own homes. Ed says that his consciousness of environmental issues “came from growing up in smoggy Los Angeles. I lived there from when I was born in 1949 to 1952, and I live in LA now. At this point I’ve lived there over two decades. So, at that point in 1970 when the first Earth Day came along, I went, ‘Yeah, I’m on board,’ because it was wrong. It’s not right to live in this kind of choking pollution. It hurts my lungs and it’s not good, and I’m going to try to do something different. It was very personal.”
In 1970, Ed began changing his lifestyle to lessen the impact of his consumption on the environment, and was surprised to find that these alterations helped conserve his money as well as the earth. “That is what’s so effective about the show,” said Ed. “We certainly show some highfalutin’ homes with some big-ticket items, but we always focus on the cheap and easy stuff. We have that up on the website as well. I’m not asking people to do it any differently from the way I did it in 1970. I was broke, and what I was doing even after 1970 wasn’t much. So do the cheap and easy stuff first, you will save money, and then you move up the ladder and do more.” I asked him what he would tell a consumer who, like most of us, feels overwhelmed by the amount that there is to do in terms of living a more eco-conscious lifestyle. “Get out of your car as much as you can,” Ed responded. “This means that if you live in an area where you can walk to things, do that. When weather permits, ride a bike. If you live near public transportation, try that. Second, save energy in your home as much as possible. What does that mean? Energy-efficient light bulbs, energy-saving thermostats…You’ll save money and get a taste for it and you’ll want to do more.”
Ed has high expectations for the evolution of his own ecologically sound lifestyle as well as optimism for the future of American environmentalism. “My long-term goal is to be more efficient in home energy use and in travel, whatever the mode of transportation, and to do something about air pollution, water pollution . . . we’ve got a lot of different things to work on. In the short term, I want to help people to save money in this tough economy.”
Ed Begley Jr.’s grandparents, Michael Begley from Killarney and Hannah Clifford Begley from Killorglin, both in County Kerry, came over from Ireland on a boat in 1898 and settled to raise a family in Hartford, CT. Ed’s childhood included the Irish experience of Catholic schools in New York, on which he commented, “Though the nuns at Cure of Ars Catholic School in Merrick were super strict, my experience there and at Stella Niagara in Lewiston showed me that hard work and discipline can really pay off.”
Ed stays in close communication with his relatives in Ireland. “A relative on my grandmother’s side, a Clifford, lives in Killarney still and I write to him and his daughter and stay in touch with them. Mick Begley, a cousin of mine, lives in Dublin and I also keep in touch with him. He’s come to visit me here and brought his family over, so I see him a lot.”
Ed was drawn to acting by the work of his Academy Award-winning father, and his work also brings families together, as I found in preparation for my interview with him. I was familiar with Ed’s work from his appearances on more recent television shows like Arrested Development and Six Feet Under, but my grandfather remembered seeing him on Johnny Carson decades earlier. “For many years, I just tried to pick the best material and that would vary from film on occasion to television shows like St. Elsewhere . . . when I got that job in the early 1980s, it was better than most films I’d worked on,” says Ed. “Even though it was on the smaller screen, it was better material. I did stage as well, and sometimes that provides the best material. And this reality show – there’s no script, but it’s an opportunity to engage people in a humorous fashion and to have takeaways every show where people can try this stuff and save money.”
The beginnings of Ed’s eclectic career included stand-up comedy in nightclubs between 1969 and 1976, which he considers “the greatest training, better than any acting school I could’ve gone to, because it’s very immediate. You get all the condemnation or praise instantly by the very fact that they would be laughing or they wouldn’t, and there’s no better review or opinion than that. If you’ve got a good act – you know, some people begrudgingly or reluctantly laugh if they feel it’s politically incorrect, whatever they feel – but they laugh just the same. So it’s a very immediate kind of return and I liked that, so I did that for a while.”
Ed, Rachelle and the rest of the green movement are picking up speed in their effort to influence America’s consumer habits, but there are still obstacles: for example, the fact that only 57% of Americans see “solid evidence of [global] warming,” according to The Pew Research Center poll.
“It’s difficult because there’s so much opposition still,” says Ed. “Skepticism is healthy. I like people who are skeptical, and it’s good to be skeptical about climate change even, but to deny what is happening with the snows of Kilimanjaro melting, and the Greenland ice shelf melting, and the Arctic ice melting…We can see Alaska’s glaciers receding from photographic documentation at Glacier National Park, and even within the lower forty-eight states you can see the evidence of it. When people deny that, it gives the wider population a reason to not do anything. It gives them an excuse for inaction. The interesting thing is, the main reason that [people say] we shouldn’t do anything is because of how much it’s going to cost. ‘It’s going to break the bank.’ Keep in mind, that’s what they said when we went about cleaning up the air in Los Angeles in the early seventies. ‘Hey, we all want clean air, but we can’t afford it.’ But we cleaned up the air in LA and businesses thrived because there are jobs making catalytic converters and turbines and cleaning spray paint pollution and all this stuff you need to clean up the air. So that’s the big lie. Somehow, [the idea is that] the money that one makes on an oil refinery, those dollars are printed on good Federal Reserve notes that have value that goes out into the wider community, but the money you would spend on wind turbines, on solar panels, hybrid cars, green installation, that’s printed on paper that disappears instantly the minute you spend it. And of course that’s absurd. It would be good for our economy to do this stuff. Even if you disagree about climate change – and this is the way I approach this when I talk around the country – then let’s agree to disagree. I think it’s so, and many other scientists do. You think it’s not so . . . let’s agree to disagree about that. You want to clean up the air like we did in LA, you want to lessen our dependence on Middle East oil, and you want to put money in your pocket? Most people have a hard time saying no to that, and if you do those three things you’ve also done a great deal to combat climate change. So what’s the harm in that? I haven’t heard a good answer to that yet.”