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Catching Up With Ed Begley, Jr.

by Jim Longworth

Say what you will about the six degrees of Kevin Bacon, but truth is the most connected man in Hollywood is Ed Begley, Jr. That’s because Ed knows or has worked with just about every major celebrity in the universe. Now, thanks to his new memoir, we can all feel connected to Ed.
“To the Temple of Tranquility…and Step On It!”, takes us on a no-holds-barred journey with Ed, who, at age 74, still looks like he could pass for a member of the Beach Boys. In the book we learn of his early struggles with alcohol (drinking a quart of vodka daily), and his more recent battle with Parkinsons.

We discover that Ed didn’t know the identity of his biological mother until he was nearly 16 years old, yet, despite the trauma of that revelation, he didn’t hold a grudge against his Dad. Just the opposite. Ed Jr. revered his famous Oscar-winning father and was in awe of his talent. And of course, we get to learn about Ed’s celebrity friends (both famous and infamous), and what led him to become an environmental activist.
I first got “connected” to Ed back in 1997 when I was writing a series of articles about “St. Elsewhere”, the groundbreaking medical drama that launched the careers of Denzel Washington, Howie Mandel, and Mark Harmon. It also made Ed a major celebrity in his own right, garnering six straight EMMY nominations for his portrayal of Dr. Victor Ehrlich. The issues-driven show also taught Ed about the impact that television has on people’s lives. During a taping of “Donohue”, the “St. Elsewhere” cast heard from one audience member who said, “I was in the hospital for 21 days with colon cancer. Friends, God and St. Elsewhere were responsible for healing me.” “It made me feel good being attached to that show,” Ed told me.
Young Sheldon with Ed BegleyToday Ed’s Parkinsons is under control, and he is still acting, most recently as the professor in “Young Sheldon”. He lives in a LEED-certified house with his wife Rachelle Carson who has served as his partner and foil both on TV and in real life for the past 24 years. I recently spoke with Ed about his new book, his health, and his commitment to protecting the environment.   
Jim: Soon after your father told you the identity of your biological mother, you began to abuse alcohol. But what else drove you to drink?
Ed:  Well, I really admired guys like Richard Burton, Oliver Reed and Peter O’Toole. They were incredible actors and I wanted to be like them. I thought it was the drinking that made them great, so I actually pursued alcohol when I was just 15 and a half years old. I wanted to drink like them, drink like a man, and not like my Dad who quit drinking when I was about three years old.
Jim:  You caught the acting bug from your father. Tell me about that.
Ed:  When he was in a play, I would go backstage, and I went on tour with him for shows like “Look Homeward Angel” and “Advise and Consent”.  I’d go backstage and I could feel the energy in the audience.  So, I wanted to do what my Dad did, but I had it all wrong, Jim. I’m thinking, “Dad makes it look easy, and I’m a charming guy, so just give me a role on Gunsmoke, or Ben Casey.” But I didn’t train.
Jim:  Did your Dad’s name ever open doors for you or land you any jobs?
Ed:  At first, I wanted to change my name and not trade off of my father’s reputation, but I quickly realized how hard it was to get into the business. I could also see how much it would hurt my father’s feelings if I changed my name and didn’t carry on the Begley tradition, so I became Ed Begley Jr. 
Jim: Who were your favorite film or TV actors when you were a kid?
Ed: I liked John Wayne and Rock Hudson ..but it never occurred to me to put my father in that group because I had no idea what a great actor he was, and how incredible he was in “12 Angry Men”, or how great he was in “Sorry Wrong Number”.  I finally developed a sense of gratitude for being born the son of Ed Begley. I had won the lottery, Jim, and I didn’t even buy a ticket. Yeah, I was a “nepo” baby but I didn’t know what that was.  I finally took acting classes to get some finer level of skills, and then I’d get a call from somebody saying to come in and read for a part on a TV series, and it turns out it was my father who had set it up. I just had very little gratitude for being born on second base.  
Jim:  You and I are both children of the 1950s, which was hardly an era for environmental responsibility and awareness, so what led you to become an activist?
Ed:  I saw the smog around Los Angeles. I saw the Santa Barbara oil spill. And I saw pictures of the Cuyahoga river catching fire in Cleveland. Well, rivers aren’t supposed to catch fire. So when they had the first Earth Day in 1970, I said “sign me up”. I started recycling and composting, and I bought an electric car.
Jim:  You talk a lot about our carbon footprint. What do you mean?
Ed:  Our carbon footprint is the net result of how much CO2 it takes to do any job or activity. It takes a certain amount of CO2 to make a mountain bike or solar panels, or a wind turbine. But if you build them right, they last 30 or 40 years and they will give you a net savings of CO2 over the life of those items.  The point is if you make your decisions with a little bit of education and a little bit of thought, you can beat the dealer, if you will.  You’re using less CO2 than you are making. I have been cardon negative since 1985 thanks in part to investing in a wind farm, and installing a solar roof.
 Ed BegleyJim:  When did you first suspect that you had Parkinsons?
Ed:  Back in the late ‘90’s I’d try to do something with my left pinky finger, and it would twitch, and I’d think, “What the hell is that?” Then I had to get special boots made because of problems with my left heel. I had pain in my left arm that lasted for months and months. All of the problems were on the left side of my body, and that was a sure sign of Parkinsons. In 2004 I started having trouble with my balance, and my body would twitch, but I didn’t report it to the doctor. Then in 2016 I went to a speech therapist because I was starting to slur my words and couldn’t articulate them the way I used to.  That’s when I was diagnosed with Parkinsons.
Jim:  You probably know more celebrities than anyone else in Hollywood. Your friends include Taylor Swift, Nicholson, DiCaprio, Denzel, Meryl Streep, and hundreds of other A-Listers. Even so, how is it you came to cook dinner for DeNiro, Tommy Lee Jones, Daniel Day Lewis, and Hugh Jackman all on one night?
Ed:  That was the brainchild of Howard Koch, Jr. a friend of mine
who was President of the Academy and I was on the Board. And Howard said, “I have a great idea, let’s have the Governors of each branch cook dinner for a group of 2013 Oscar nominees. So, I cooked a vegan meal for those guys. They all had a great time interacting with each other and enjoyed each other’s company.
Jim:  Why did you decide to write this book now?
Ed:  Two years ago, my daughter Hayden came to me and said she wanted to record some stories of what it was like when I was growing up, and some of the famous people I had known. It was kinda fun talking to her about that, so I started taking some notes on my computer, and typing up all those things that were in the attic of my mind.
To the Temple of Tranquility…and Step On It! by Ed BegleyJim:  You wrote in the book that you were once attacked by 25 guys, stabbed repeatedly, and almost died.  Is it true that those guys were oil lobbyists?
Ed:  (laughs) It was not true, and it wasn’t 25. It was maybe a dozen.
To the Temple of Tranquility…and Step On It!” is available from Amazon. 

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