At a late-summer shoot for season two of the HGTV reality series Living With Ed, über-eco-meister Ed Begley and his wife Rachelle Carson are in a Venice bungalow that is in the process of being remodeled. With cameras rolling, Begley and Carson discuss the mosaic of kitchen tiles with designer Denise Shaw.
“So the tiles are recycled from old tiles and clay,” Begley says. “So it’s like what Rachelle does with me every day — you just grind it and grind it and grind it down .?.?. ”
Carson smiles benignly and gets into an enthusiastic discussion with Begley about the house’s soon-to-arrive “low plex” windows, which currently are on a boat from Germany. Of course, these aren’t ordinary windows, they are top-of-the-market double-paned windows that can open out, while the tops open in for security. The living room contains SolaTube lighting devices — glass tubes inserted in the ceiling. At night, they beam down sunlight that’s been stored during the day from a device on the roof.
Carson loves the house’s Eco Timber floor, made from unvarnished, toxin-free Brazilian cherry wood. Begley stands next to the siding sheet of a cabinet, made of compressed wood. He fingers the surface and asks Shaw, the designer, “Is it possible that an old copy of the L.A. Weekly that I’ve read has been recycled in this board?”
Shaw replies, quick on the draw, “It’s possible there’s more than one.”
Then Begley’s cell phone rings and he answers in a secretive voice, “I can’t talk right now. I’m with her right now.”
Carson nods, tacitly acknowledging Begley’s joke. Director Joe Brutsman stops the action and asks the three to take it back to “just before Ed’s mistress called.”
Shortly after, they stage a scene of Begley and Carson walking into the house to check on its progress with the new owners, Hala and Paul. They praise the energy-efficient appliances and low-flow toilets, the recycled glass fixtures and a counter top made of recycled bottles. Paul is a tall guy with thick dreds. Hala carries a newborn engufled in a wrap-around.
“Do you want to talk about the hemp diapers?” Hala asks.
Last month in Spain, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the United Nations/World Meteorological Organization research group that won a Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore earlier this month) released its fourth set of findings, which concluded that global warming was an inarguable phenomenon (a point that’s even been reluctantly conceded by the White House), and that the burning of fossil fuels is largely responsible for the climate changes being measured worldwide. But Begley didn’t need Al Gore or reports from the IPCC to spur him to action. The actor has been promoting alternative energy sources for more than three decades, only to be ridiculed by the usual slew of conservative pundits, who have worked double shifts to discredit him. During California’s 2000 energy crisis, Fox’s Bill O’Reilly angrily accused Begley and other environmentalists of seeking to shut down power plants in the state. (Fox, of course, has never uttered a syllable questioning actor Charlton Heston’s feverish pitches for the gun lobby.)
But nobody can say that Begley, 57, hasn’t put his money where his mouth is. Solar panels generate all the heat and electricity for his Studio City home and his electric car. A picket fence, made of recycled plastic, embraces a yard filled with fruit trees and vegetables. Sitting in his insulated home with hardwood floors and the comfy feel of a large cottage, Begley sips coffee as he counters arguments that try to cast his ideas as impractical.
The son of a conservative, the Oscar-winning actor Ed Begley Sr., Begley Jr. grew up in Los Angeles and attributes his political awakening to the influence in 1967 of a high school teacher, Jerry Aranow, who had his class read from Atlas, a publication of World Press Review. That’s when Begley got a primer in what was really happening in Vietnam from the perspectives of foreign journalists. Three years later, in 1970, he bought his first electric car. Throughout the ’70s, he appeared on most of the decade’s major TV shows, including Room 222, Mannix, Maude, Ironside, Adam-12, Happy Days, Baretta and Love, American Style. In the ’80s he was a core member of the groundbreaking St. Elsewhere cast and became known for showing up at high-profile Hollywood events on a bicycle. He says people didn’t so much ridicule him then as express amazement that he’d cycled all the way from the Valley. Begley’s political disagreements with his father, he says, remained soft-spoken.
“People were [later] so derisive – O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh. But now that we’re looking at $4 a gallon for gas, it doesn’t look so crazy. My investment in a wind farm doesn’t look so crazy. Of course, all these things I did for the environment are good for the economy, because they’re good for my economy.”
The eco-friendly household cleaner that he markets, Begley’s Best, is also good for his economy. In developing the product, as well as his sustainable lifestyle, Begley figured he was creating a cushion for when Hollywood stopped calling. Roles started diminishing in his 30s, he says, and even more in his 40s. He can’t explain why, but now that he’s in his 50s, he’s been busier than ever on film and TV.
Among his more recent projects is Living With Ed. Begley gives new meaning to the term “Mr. Right,” or rather, “Mr. Always Right,” and the show plays off the comic tensions his wife endures living with the eccentricities of a man who builds his opinions like a shrewd accountant and can demonstrate the rewards of 30-plus years of investing wisely — particularly in alternative energy — in order to save for the future. Begley’s philosophy is entirely counter-cultural (which explains the wrath of so many pundits), crashing into the prevailing post-WWII value system of conspicuous consumption and debt — personal and national. Living with Ed means living with a guy who speaks about his very eco-sensible notions in a profundo voice with arguments that are always on-point and a gentle, confident demeanor. And if you dare to challenge Mr. Right, you’re going to have to bear in mind that a team of Nobel Prize–winning scientists have just validated almost everything he’s ever stood for. It takes a particularly feisty partner to rise to that challenge, and Carson does so, not by bucking his politics but through her own assertive intelligence.
Still, what gives a celebrity such as Begley the right to make pronouncements on the economy or on ecology?
“Anybody, rich or poor, has a right to speak their mind,” he says, sitting in his own living room, pointing out the obvious. “But if you’re famous, you have this megaphone, and a great responsibility that comes with it. You must not cry fire in a crowded theater. When I realized that people were starting to listen to my opinions on environmental matters, I made sure that everything checked out. I stopped getting my source material from environmental Web sites. I would go to NASA, National Geographic, Princeton, the Scripps Institute. I would look at peer-review studies that address the matters that I found of interest. That’s when I learned that, for the most part, the environmental groups had it right; I also found it interesting that most of the right-wing talk-radio shows regularly get things wrong. I also got involved with the Union of Concerned Scientists, and found there was one incident where the environmentalists got it wrong. They said there were sheep down in Tierra del Fuego with cataracts from ozone depletion; that may or may not be true, but I never spoke about it at a microphone, because there was never a report written about it. I’m very cautious about what I say.”
Begley feels that much of the bad rap given to left-wing celebrity activists comes from a lack of fact-checking and from the damage he thinks some have caused trying to use the pulpit of the Academy Awards to make their points.
“There’s a time and a place to make a statement,” he says.
“I disagree,” interrupts Carson, as she enters from the kitchen. She is on the same page politically as Begley but is less cautious than him.
Begley twists in an upholstered wooden armchair. “I don’t think,” he reiterates, “that’s the place to make a political statement.”
“Well, there’s Hardball, Larry King and so on for that.”
“Not many people watch those shows.”
“But the Academy Awards .?.?. it’s an awards show, honey.”
“It’s an absurdity anyway. Why not say something meaningful there?”
Carson leaves and Begley readjusts himself, unflustered. This could easily have been a scene from the show.
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“I want to clarify my position,” he says. “You can use that megaphone whenever it’s presented. But [with] the Oscars, somewhere along the line, it became overkill, that seizing of the moment to speak to so many millions of people. It became tiresome even to people who shared the politics being expressed. I’d rather have my message be heard and not tuned out. However, I don’t want to do a song and dance if the fire marshal taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘Ed, please calmly evacuate the auditorium row by row.’ That fire marshal is the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“O’Reilly blamed me for shutting down power plants. I said name them. He said, ‘I’ll get back to you.’ It’s been seven years. I’m still waiting. In that time, while Enron and the energy companies were gaming the system, shutting down plants for ‘maintenance’ to create a shortage, it was Bill O’Reilly’s pals who shut down the power plants. I think the truth will come out eventually.
“The dog barks,” Begley says finally. “But the caravan moves on.”
LIVING WITH ED | HGTV | Sundays, 11:30 p.m. through Dec. Check www.hgtv.com for future air dates and www.livingwithed.net for more on Begley’s activities.