Photo: Tricia Lee Pascoe
Take the rain-barrel squabble: He wants to capture and reuse precipitation. She doesn’t want barrels that clash with the house. “Honey, what’s more ugly?” Begley recalls asking. “The fish flopping in the mud there in the Owens Valley, or this color?” It’s a constant battle over aesthetics, he says, but he’s slowly showing her that it won’t cost much extra money or time to live green. Now he’ll show TV audiences the same thing.
Perhaps best known for his Emmy-nominated turn in St. Elsewhere, Begley has most recently been featured in the Christopher Guest film For Your Consideration and guest starred on Veronica Mars, Arrested Development, and other series. Off screen, he’s garnered attention for his role as a committed environmentalist in the Hollywood community. An active member and sometimes-chair on the board of a number of green orgs, including the Environmental Media Association, Begley has earned a number of prestigious awards for his eco-work, and encourages fellow actors to change their bling-y lifestyles. “You want to go to the Oscars? Go in a Prius. Go in an electric car,” he advises. Or do as Begley has done: show up on a bicycle.
This isn’t just a publicity stunt or an effort to be hip. Begley’s been driving an electric car since 1970. He recharges the current one, a Toyota RAV4, with the solar panels that provide all the electricity for his modest, two-bedroom home in sunny Studio City, Calif. He grows his own veggies and cooks them in a solar oven. He even powers his toaster with a stationary bike.
When I got the chance recently to ask him what it’s really like living with Ed, he had just arrived home from some errands. It was only 10 a.m., but he’d been out delivering cases of his Begley’s Best eco-cleaning supplies to a nearby vendor, taking a natural-gas bus and the subway to make it back in time for my call. Despite his early day, Begley was chipper and entertaining, relaying conversations with his wife as if portraying characters in a play. Between laughs, I managed to ask him how he came to star in a reality show, whether Hollywood’s recent green streak is sustainable, and which of his eco-projects he’s most proud of.
Let’s talk about your upcoming show. A press release called it a “family docu-soap” — is this like an environmental version of Newlyweds?
Photo: Aaron Rapoport
In a way, I suppose it is. It might also be called Green Acres for the New Millennium. My wife and I are of a different mind in some ways, but ultimately, we find much we can agree on. I won her over to a lot of different environmental notions because I’ve shown that it really doesn’t cost her anything in inconvenience or dollars. And she’s won me over to aesthetics. I don’t mind if something looks good as long as it still works and is energy efficient.
There’s still much we battle about. There’s a certain amount of conflict in the show, which is good television and also quite real. I assure you, we don’t manufacture any of it. We have stuff we disagree on. I got these plastic rain barrels, and she was just adamant about that. She thought they were unattractive. I said I’d paint ’em. Still, it wasn’t good enough. So all that stuff is the fun and the challenge that we have living a lifestyle that works for both of us.
How did the project get started?
I’ve for years been pitched ideas about doing an environmental show. I’ve tried it a few times; it can be exciting or it can be boring, depending on how you do it. You can’t preach to people, as I’m sure you know.
About a year ago, [producer] Joe Brutsman comes to me with an idea for a reality show. … “It’s called Living with Ed,” [he said]. “And it’s like, she needs to go get her hair done and the nails, and you’re there riding the bike and the compost and the solar panels, and she can’t use the blow-dryer cause the solar’s down too low.”
“Wait a minute, this could be good,” I thought. “And I like the title Living with Ed. This could be good, I don’t know — let’s try it.”
They shot this ten-minute thing, and they were in our house 13 hours or 14 hours. “I can’t do this,” I told Rachelle. “For them to be in my house 14 hours a day, five days a week, this would not be fun — this will be a drag.” She was gung-ho to do it. So I looked at the show, and I went, “This is very funny.” It was informative. It was entertaining. It was everything you would have hoped it would be. And she said, “They said they would only be here a day or two a week.” And as it turns out, that happened to be true. So we started doing it. We’re doing six shows, and I have high hopes for the whole thing.
So they were at your house for a couple days a week for how long a period?
They’re still here. They’re not here today; we’re off today. But we shoot two days a week, and we’re on episode five, I think, of six. So we’ll be done by the end of the year, easily. And it takes them three or four days to get all the shots they need for a show. They come at nine in the morning; they’re done at six. It’s a very easy schedule. I’m shooting in my house; it can’t get much easier than that. “Ed?” “Yeah?” “We’re outside. We’re gonna set up now — can you come out and talk about solar panels?” “Uh, yeah, I think I could very easily come outside and talk about solar panels.”
It’s the best job I’ve ever had. I’m glad I did it.
And it’s all green production, too, right?
Well, first of all, when they’re plugging into my outlets, they’re all solar-powered. My house is solar-powered. They come in hybrid cars, they recycle everything while they’re here. They’re buying carbon offsets for the production. They’re doing everything green, green, green.
In 2000, you wrote a piece for us — a sort of travelogue — as you journeyed from L.A. to the political caucuses in Des Moines in a natural-gas-powered car.
Yes, they didn’t have hybrids then. This was January of 2000, and there were no Toyota Priuses available in America. They had them in Japan, but you couldn’t buy them here. I got my Prius in August of 2000 — later that year. But at this point, I had been for years driving a natural-gas car — and it was, well, if you read the piece …
You had a lot of trouble because the car kept switching to regular gasoline — and you said next time you’d ride your bike. But technology has definitely improved since then, so what do you drive now?
For around L.A., my first mode of transportation is walking; second in the hierarchy is my bicycle; third would be public transportation; and then fourth would be my electric car, for picking up large amounts of groceries, taking my Begley’s Best products around to be delivered somewhere; and then fifth in the line would be my wife’s Prius.
You recently were part of Who Killed the Electric Car? Were you passionate about those vehicles — is that how you got involved in that film?
Yeah, very much so. I thought that was a great car. I was sorry that they crushed all those. But let me be very clear — I turned mine in ahead of schedule. I was not fighting them taking it away from me.
I had a baby in 1999, so I needed a car with a backseat. I couldn’t put her little child seat in the front seat with the airbag. I heard the RAV4s were gonna be available, so I got rid of my EV1. But it was a terrific car, really, a great car.
You’re considered an environmental leader in Hollywood. How do you talk about your environmental passions with your fellow actors and involve them in the work you’re doing?
It’s something I’ve been doing for a long time. I bought my first electric car in 1970. People are always interested in it. They want to know, “Can we get an electric car?” Tom Hanks and Michelle Pfeiffer both are friends of mine, and they wanted to get electric cars, and I helped facilitate that for them.
It’s something a lot of people care about, and I think people years ago saw the connection with our consumption and some of the very-easy-to-quantify problems right here in L.A., like smog, and then the big-picture items [like] global warming. Also, people see the connection, I think, between our dependence on Mid-East oil and our national security.
Do you feel like awareness about the issues has grown or changed since you’ve been in Hollywood?
Yes, very much so. I started doing this, like I said, in 1970. There was no awareness, really, of such things back then — very, very little, so little as to be nonexistent. At the 20-year anniversary of Earth Day, there was a lot of activity, a lot of awareness. People became interested; but the awareness and the activity — the activism, if you will — did not seem to linger after 1990.
But then a few years down the line, as more information came out about global climate change, about our dependence on foreign oil, about air-pollution issues, more people became interested and motivated to do something. And Hollywood still needs to do much more, but they’ve come a long way. There’ve been a lot of green productions and green production guidelines that have been implemented, but there needs to be more. We can’t stop where we are.
Is it just a trend or something that can be sustained?
No, I think this time it’s real. Only time will tell, but there has never been such activity, so much stuff being done by so many people — high-profile and otherwise. I’m very hopeful this time that we’re headed in the right direction.
You’ve said you were inspired by your father to become an actor — where did you get your environmental ethic?
In a way, it came from him too. He was a conservative Republican, and I am not. But I’ll tell you, he was a guy who’d been through the Depression and loved to conserve. He was a working actor and making good money, but still, the lights were turned off, the water was turned off. You didn’t leave the water running when you brushed your teeth; you did not throw away tin foil! We threw some things away, but we recycled everything you could possibly recycle. He saved things because he just didn’t have the throwaway mentality. He didn’t use the word “environmentalist” — I don’t think he knew it! But he lived that way in many key areas of his life. He was a conservative that liked to conserve.
And then the other thing he did that was very good for me that got me on this path — he encouraged me to go into Cub Scouts and then Boy Scouts. So I had some contact with the natural world and developed a love of the natural world through scouting.
I know you’ve been active on the board of the Solar Electric Light Fund for years — can you tell me a little bit about that project and why it’s important to you?
To build a power plant and run lines to houses, to huts, to anything is a tremendous amount of work. … I think that’s part of the success of the Solar Electric Light Fund. Rather than put a big generating plant somewhere in Africa or South America or Asia because people need power in remote villages, how about leapfrogging over it like wireless technology and just giving them the service where they need it — on the roof of their hut.
Let’s shift to a more local focus. You said this morning you were delivering some Begley’s Best. I was surprised to hear that you were delivering it in person.
Photo: Begley’s Best
Oh yeah. I have no employees. That’s the way the company has been able to grow. I’ve had to put so little money into it, because I do all the work myself. I make every invoice in Quickbooks and deliver every package — every case that I could reasonably deliver myself — because shipping is so expensive. That’s also the reason I mostly sell it in Southern California and the West.
I now have a distributor called Nature’s Best. They work west of the Rockies, so I’m in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Washington, Utah — just these Western states served by Nature’s Best. A lot of people don’t work with that particular distributor so those I drive myself in my electric car around L.A. For longer trips, I use my wife’s Prius.
That’s devotion. We’ve talked about a bunch of different projects — which one are you most proud of?
The thing I’m the most proud of is my children. I have a 7-year-old daughter that really, really cares about the environment and gets all this stuff because she’s been around it her whole life. And my grown kids — my son who’s 28 and my daughter who’s 29 — have such an environmental ethic. We always had a vegetable garden, we always recycled, and I drove these electric cars and other alternative-fuel vehicles.
You ask the thing I’m the proudest of — that’s it. It’s that my children know about these things, and they care about them, and they’ve embraced them. It means more to me than anything.