Ed Begley Jr. isn't kidding around, though he looks something like a kid who happens to be in his early 50s. Blond bangs knock into thick-rimmed glasses as he strides across the refurbished lobby of North Hollywood's El Portal Theater, dressed in shorts and sneakers and a plaid wool shirt. Begley's in rehearsal for Cesar and Ruben, his own new musical based on the lives of his heroes, United Farm Workers leader César Chávez and journalist Ruben Salazar, that's currently in previews and slated to open Friday night. Begley is probably most recognized for recurring roles on Six Feet Under and 7th Heaven, though he's a regular reader with L.A. Theater Works' radio recording series, and he appeared locally onstage in 1999 at the Geffen Playhouse in David Mamet's The Cryptogram a role he originated in Boston and took to New York.
But here and now, he's a producer-director-playwright-accountant, handing out paychecks to actors in the lobby. Though two business partners have gone into the fray with him, Begley says he tapped out his credit cards and mortgaged his home to help meet Cesar and Ruben's budget. Begley's the kind of man who, perturbed by air pollution and global warming, buys an electric car and removes his home from the city's power grid, relying entirely on solar power, double-panel windows and energy-efficient appliances. Then, for a greater impact, he lets everyone know what he's done, how the planet's ecology can be preserved and how life can be lived. At rallies, Begley is cheered when he holds up his bus pass.
"I'm just a guy who puts his money where his mouth is," Begley writes on his Web site. Clearly, Begley likes to personally pour the cachet from his celebrity into his political and social convictions, or into producing and directing his own play about people who inspire him. Begley's determination is equal parts hubris and goodness. It makes you wonder where such energy came from and about the effects of such a public life on his private one. After all, it's one thing to save the world; it's quite another to raise a family while doing so.
There have been domestic costs to being so publicly principled, Begley admits. He now has two grown children by his first wife, Ingrid Begley, and a 3-year-old by his current wife, Rachelle Carson, who's performing in Cesar and Ruben. "I'm always off saving the owls," Begley says, "but what about the track meet, and the school play? I missed some of those myself."
Edward Begley Jr. grew up Catholic in a modest Long Island home, but was actually born in 1949 at Hollywood's Presbyterian Hospital. He is the son of theater and radio actor Ed Begley Sr. and says he remembers being in backstage dressing rooms with his dad, touring through Boston and Philadelphia: "The energy of the theater was unmistakable." The family returned to Van Nuys in 1963 after Begley Sr. won a 1962 Academy Award for best supporting actor in Sweet Bird of Youth.
Begley Jr. was involved "from a great distance" with César Chávez and the United Farm Workers union. "I didn't buy grapes for 30 years," he remembers. "I never knew if the boycott was on or off, so I wouldn't take any chances."
Then the extraordinary happened. In 1987, Begley was at Pann's Restaurant on Sepulveda Boulevard. "I was sitting there having a bowl of oatmeal when these two dudes got out of a very, very modest car, they came into the coffee shop, and it became clear to me that one of them was César Chávez. I kept thinking, Where's the entourage one would expect from an internationally known labor leader?
"I went up to him, I said, 'I don't want to bother you, I just want to say hello, my name is Ed Begley. I've been adhering to the grape boycott for years now, and I just want to say if there's any way I can be of help, let me know.'"
Begley says the most time he ever spent with Chávez was in the spring of 1990, when they served together on an environmental panel in Colorado Springs. After a panel discussion, Chávez invited Begley for a walk.
"We went to a church, he might have lit a votive candle," Begley recalls. "And we talked about the sanctity of life and creation, how his belief in a higher power only enhanced his activism it wasn't dominion over the natural world, we were stewards. We talked for about half an hour. It was a very special time. The next time I encountered him was to carry his coffin through the streets of Delano in 1993."
Years later, Begley remembers walking into a record store and speaking about César Chávez with a young clerk, who thought he was talking about the fighter, Julio Cesar Chavez. Obviously, streets named after the farm-union leader and postage stamps issued in his honor were not doing the job of keeping history alive. This fueled Begley's determination that he had to do his part.
In Evita!, Andrew Lloyd Webber made an icon out of Eva Perón, partly because she was so far from angelic, which is precisely what made her so fascinating. Begley's challenge is to do the same with a character he so obviously sees as heroic. If he succeeds, it's because he's struggled to bring dimensions to someone who's already enshrined in legend. In fact, Begley's been working on Cesar and Ruben for almost a decade. Part of the problem, he says, was that he was writing the wrong play for about eight years. He had Chávez narrate his own story in an "and then I did" history lesson masquerading as a play. Finally, it occurred to Begley that Chávez needed to speak with someone on the stage.
Now the play opens in the moments after Chávez's death, where he meets the ghost of Ruben Salazar. Salazar is the L.A. Times journalist and news director for the Spanish-language television station KMEX who was killed by Sheriff's Deputy Tom Wilson while Salazar was taking a break from covering a Vietnam War protest. According to La Voz de Aztlan, on August 29, 1970, after some violence had broken out during the rally, Wilson burst into East L.A.'s Silver Dollar Bar on Whittier Boulevard and aimed a rifle at a group of men sitting near Salazar. Even though two women in the bar pleaded with Wilson not to shoot, he did. His tear-gas canister struck Salazar in the head and killed him instantly. Despite a ruling from a coroner's panel that the killing was a homicide, the D.A. never pressed charges.
Begley's theatrical conceit is that, in death, neither Chávez nor Salazar can remember their own lives, which provides each the opportunity to narrate their compatriots' stories. Furthermore, Begley has obtained the rights to songs by Ruben Blades, Peter Gabriel, Joni Mitchell, Santana, Enrique Inglesias, David Crosby, Sting, Phil Collins, Don Henley and Carmen Moreno. In the tradition of musicals such as The Education of Randy Newman and Mamma Mia!, already-extant songs drive the action. So when migrant farm workers are turned away by local police from California restaurants and towns that don't allow Mexicans in certain public areas, we see them drifting across the stage to the sounds of Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush's duet "Don't Give Up."
In the theater, Begley sits at a stage manager's console talking quietly to somebody over headphones as choreographer Roman Vasquez takes a group of actors playing migrant farm workers through some dance steps. In unison, they hold pump-spray cans of insecticide over their heads, then fall to the ground in one quick thrust.
After they repeat the scene five times, Begley asks to see it once again. He really isn't kidding around.
Cesar and Ruben previews Thursday, March 13, 8 p.m., and opens Friday, March 14, at 8 p.m. at the El Portal Theater, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; performances continue Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7 p.m.; matinees Saturday at 3 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m., through April 27. For information, call (818) 508-4200. For tickets, call (213) 480-3232.