You never know what background will shape an environmentalist. The great American essayist and eco-warrior Edward Abbey spent his formative years in the lush forests of western Pennsylvania; in contrast, primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall grew up in the urban setting of London, England. The route to ecological awareness can be either direct or circuitous, and the diversity of influences can be vast.
For actor Ed Begley Jr.—the son of an Academy-Award winning actor of the same name—the glitter of Tinsel town seems like an unlikely catalyst for environmental consciousness. The 57-year-old performer, who is married to fellow actor Rachelle Carson, has had a lifetime of success in Hollywood, distinguishing himself as an actor of humor and depth, with a versatility spanning television, stage and film. From his five-time-Emmy-nominated performance on NBC’s award-winning St. Elsewhere (the progenitor of prime-time hospital dramas), to his comic ingenuity in Christopher Guest’s celebrated mockumentaries Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, to his skillful styling in David Mamet’s complex play The Cryptogram, Begley continues to impress audiences in every venue.
But perhaps his most satisfying work has been more personal, lending his face and his voice as a public advocate for protecting the environment. Begley feels this passion in his bones. He has a deep understanding of the intricacies of our planet, as well as the ways our collective lifestyles affect it. But his interest isn’t relegated to large-scale public policy issues; rather, he and Carson practice what they preach. They live each day in a manner that has a low impact on the earth’s resources, from powering their house with solar energy to being conscientious about what they drive. A much-valued and articulate spokesperson, Begley has received awards from some of the nation’s top environmental groups, including the California League of Conservation Voters, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Coalition for Clean Air, Heal the Bay and the Santa Monica Baykeeper.
Recently, ABILITY Magazine’s editor-in-chief Chet Cooper sat down with Begley and Carson in their Los Angeles-area home to talk about their experience living an ecologically responsible lifestyle, now documented on their new reality television show Living With Ed. Debuting on the Home & Garden Television network (HGTV), the show is a quirky melding of environmentally conscious living, Hollywood antics and downhome family conflict (a green-hued This Old House meets The Osbournes). It promises to be a hit with an American public that is increasingly interested in both the concept and the nitty-gritty of living green.
When Cooper had last met Begley years earlier at an event in Las Vegas, the constraints of the actor’s ardent environmental lifestyle had caused him to arrive late. Opposed to flying because of jet fuel emissions, he had attempted to make his way more ecologically. However, his natural-gas-powered car had boasted only a 150- mile range, and he was not able to find enough naturalgas filling stations on the route. So the trip evolved into an adventure Begley joking refers to as “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” Starting from his home in Los Angeles, he left his car in Barstow, hopped onto Amtrak for the second leg and then finished out the journey by Greyhound bus. It’s this indefatigability that best characterizes Begley’s brand of environmentalism. He’s a man who follows through on his principles. With that in mind, Cooper biggest dilemma when preparing for this new interview was how to get there…
On a fine California day, Chet Cooper has stowed his journalistic gear in a backpack. He cruises up to the home of Ed Begley Jr. and rings the doorbell
Chet Cooper (a little winded and dishoveled): Hi, I made it.
Ed Begley Jr.: You rode your bike? Imagine that! You’re the first journalist I’ve ever seen arrive for an interview by bicycle.
Cooper: Well, my Hummer is in the shop.
Rachelle Carson (standing next to Begley in the doorway): (laughs) What a pleasant surprise. Come on inside.
The house is modest, a home any of us could have grown up in. But Begley has updated it by installing energysaving features like the large solar panels on the roof. Inside, the rooms are decorated in warm earth tones.
Begley and Carson have a unique chemistry, both affectionate and argumentative at the same time. They often launch into talk simultaneously, finishing each other’s sentences and provocatively debating their different takes on the same story. Their mannerisms seem at times diametrically opposite, yet the man who grew up in the limelight of Hollywood and the woman from Georgia have something that can be described as a natural alchemy.
Cooper: While I catch my breath from racing up that big hill, why don’t you tell me how you two met?
(Begley and Carson look at each other and start to laugh)
Begley: We met at an environmental event.
Carson: It was 1993, and I was coming back to L.A. from living in Canada. I’d gone up to the Kern River with a group of friends who were all volunteering for an environmental cause. So I was at the event, and I decided to take a break. I was looking for an exit, and instead I found Ed. Little did I know, I’d found my exit—only not the one I was expecting!
Begley: (laughs) We’d actually met through friends a few years earlier, but we didn’t exactly hit it off the first time. Remember, Rachelle?
Carson: No, we certainly didn’t.
Cooper: Why do you think the two of you clicked this second time?
Begley: She’d lowered her standards quite a bit.
Carson: (laughs) I was desperate.
Cooper: And so the backdrop is the river, green trees and blue skies…
Carson: Yes, it was beautiful. But romantic or not, it was still a surprise that we hit it off.
Begley: An accident, really. And we’re still together 13 years later. How many times did we split up the first year? Thirty?
Carson (tapping the back of his hand): Everytime you mention our break-ups the number gets larger..
Begley: Okay, then—how about 20?
Carson: Twenty times in three years, not in one year.
Cooper: I guess we’ll call this issue of ABILITY the environmental version of The Enquirer. What made the two of you persist in becoming a couple?
Begley: (smiles) She just wanted to win, that’s all.
Cooper: Sort of like knocking bottles down at a fair— you got the prize?
Carson: (laughs) Mmm-hmmm…
Begley: And then once she got her prize, she seemed totally ambivalent! It was like she was thinking, “What have I done? Stay, or get out?” But then we had a baby. So it was like, “Yeah, I’m here.”
(Carson laughs, and her blonde hair bounces as she speaks)
Carson: And then I had to decorate. Oh, you should have seen this place. Not that it’s House and Garden now, but when we met, this place was a disaster. He lived like a bachelor.
Cooper: Well, he was a bachelor.
Begley (to Cooper): Thank you!
Carson: (laughs) Yes, you were a bachelor. But it was pathetic—it really was—so I made some changes.
Cooper: I saw the sign outside saying, No Bachelors Live Here.
Begley: (smiles) I like everything she’s done. She is a visual person who does a good job making things look nice. I have organizational skills. I’m constantly redoing the office supplies, because I’m very good at things like keeping the envelopes.
Carson: (laughs) I do what I can.
Cooper (to Carson): When you met Ed, were you involved in environmental causes as well?
Carson: Well, when I first got together with Ed, I was concerned about the environment, but I was more involved in other issues—women’s issues, children’s health, human rights, poverty—a lot of important social issues. Those were paramount for me at that time. I was talking about it all with the singer Don Henley one time—whether it’s a luxury to be concerned with the ecosystem when there are immediate needs like people who are starving. But one thing affects another. He said, “Without the environment, there’s nothing. It’s fundamental, isn’t it?”
Begley: It’s all interrelated. For instance, consider the new report that came out last week about most of the ocean’s fish. Because of the global climate change, pollution and non-sustainable fishing practices, much of the catch we know today will be fished out by 2048. There will still be fish, but those we like to eat—such as cod, haddock and flounder—will be gone if we continue along the path we’re on now. That would have a huge impact on people who rely on fish for sustenance.
Cooper: Do you plan to address environmental issues like that on Living with Ed?
Begley: In the format of the show, everyone who watches —even people who have never thought about living a low-impact, environmentally conscious life—will be able to relate. They’ll come away with a raised awareness, but they’ll also enjoy seeing the differences between the Rachelle and me.
Cooper: So the show has the two of you as co-hosts, or co-anchors?
Carson: Well, it’s not really a hosting kind of show—it’s more of a voyeur kind of show.
Cooper: I see…
Begley: (smiles) It’s a reality show about living here, she and I. The cameras follow us around and show what it’s like living with a guy who has solar panels and rides a bicycle everywhere.
Carson: Who happens to live with a person who has some sense of style and likes to retain some of the creature comforts of the modern world—you know what I mean? So there’s a juxtaposition, a conflict. You can already feel it, can’t you?
Cooper: I felt it when I came down the street! (all laugh)
Begley: I’ve been an environmentalist for over 30 years, and even though Rachelle and I have been together for 13 years, I still manage to surprise her. In a way, she’s like a big portion of the public that is environmentally aware, but still deciding how far to take that concern, in terms of their actions. It’s all very positive, and I think a lot of people will identify with her.
Carson: It’ll be fun. Even though Ed explains things in such a complete way and he’s not at all negative, at some point the viewers still might say, “How could she be married to him?”
Begley: (laughs) Maybe. But they’ll learn a lot!
Cooper: How did you come up with the idea?
Begley: Our friends Joe and Bud Brutsman worked together to create the show. But it’s funny, because I had the concept of reality TV years ago, even before shows like The Osbournes. Rachelle and I each have kids from our previous marriages. Back then, our kids were just entering their 20s and they were bemoaning the retailwage work scene. So I said to them, “Do you want to make money?” and they said, “Yeah!” I told them we should buy a couple of video cameras, and they could follow Rachelle and me around for a weekend—there’s certainly plenty of material in that. I thought we could find an editor and pitch what would be a very funny reality show.
Cooper: And did they do it?
Begley: No, none of us got around to it. Then The Osbournes hit later on, a show about a loving but dysfunctional family. I said, “See? It was a good idea!”
Carson: (laughs) Not like we’re dysfunctional or anything
Begley: Also, our friends have always told us we should do a show because we have such an interesting way of relating to one another. There’s no relationship like this anywhere, believe me.
Carson: The only other place is in this Edward Albee play…
Begley: Virginia Woolf
(Carson shoots him a look of amusement and mock annoyance)
Carson: Who ’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?… that was my punch line—thanks for stepping on it!
(Begley laughs and apologizes)
Cooper: What ’s it like having a film crew in your house? Carson: They come one or two days a week. In at 9:00 am and out by 6:00 or 7:00 pm.
Cooper: What do you do on the show?
Carson: I’m in the process of re-doing the kitchen counters with recycled glass.
Begley: And I have a rainbarrel project out back—I’m going to save rainwater.
Cooper (to Begley): So she’s doing a kitchen beautification project and you’re out there tying to collect rain—do we get any of the usual reality-TV screaming?
Begley: (laughs) Sometimes, maybe. You’ll see in the show that my rain-barrel project was avoided. Rachelle wants to beautify a kitchen that was working just fine, and I was totally open to that—I accepted her project right away. But with my project, my efforts were thwarted.
Carson: The color of the collection bins was all wrong.
Begley: They’re barrels used to collect water for my plants. I offered to paint them, to match them to the house, but she dug in her heels.
(Carson shoots a disapproving look)
Cooper: So have any funny things happened to the two of you as you’ve tried to live green?
Carson: Well, there was the time our daughter was about to be born… (Carson grins at her husband)
(Begley covers his eyes, as though they’ve been down this path before)
Begley: I had a car, but she didn’t want to ride in it. It was a perfectly good electric car with enough charge. It would’ve made it to Cedars-Sinai Hospital and back several times.
Carson (to Begley): That’s not the day I wanted to risk running out of electricity!
Begley: There was no risk.
Carson: Then call me irrational—I was in labor.
Begley (to Cooper): So I wanted to take her in the other car, the Crown Vic that ran on natural gas. Only I had to go get it refilled and the station was in Glendale.
Carson: And Cedars is the other way.
Begley: But wait, let’s put this into perspective. The reason I was going to fill it up was that you didn’t want to get to the hospital until one minute after midnight.
Carson: That’s right, because otherwise they would have charged an extra $750 for that 1/24th of a day.
(Begley rolls his eyes)
Begley: So the point is, we had the time. Getting the natural gas would’ve been only a few miles off course.
Carson: But I was in labor! So we ended up taking my regular car, only it needed gas, and Ed was at a point in his life where he wouldn’t pump gas.
(Cooper looks at Begley, who nods)
Begley: Back in the ’90s I didn’t pump one gallon.
Carson: So we get to the gas station. I’m in labor, and I’m the one out there pumping gas.
Cooper: And still, because of his principles you love him, even though you might have been seething at that moment.
(Carson softens and smiles)
Carson: Yes, I do. It’s all about humor. We both have a great sense of humor, and that’s why we can love and stay together… even after those moments.
Begley: Well, it’s not just restricted to the moment. My principles are consistent.
Carson: Yes, they are, Dear. (to Cooper) Once we were offered a trip to Venice with Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft. We couldn’t go, because Ed wouldn’t get on an airplane. Even if it’s a free trip, we just don’t do it.
(Begley gives Carson’s shoulder a gentle squeeze)
Begley: It’s all for a good reason, Honey.
Carson: You’re right, it’s all good. And you’ve lightened up. You’ll go in a car and fly on a plane sometimes now. You’ll do things you weren’t willing to do in the first six or seven years of our relationship.
Begley: Hey, we could always sail over to Europe.
Cooper: I attended a health conference in Ohio last week and met Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric. I learned they’re the largest producer of wind turbines, and they’re making a new jet engine that is the most fuelefficient on the market. So you may be able to fly sooner than you think.
Cooper: What got you started in environmentalism?
Begley: There were both good and bad things that got me interested. One good thing was being a Boy Scout and going camping and seeing nature up close. I liked it. On the bad side, I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s when there was horrible smog. By 1970 I’d had enough. At that point, there was a growing consciousness about what we were doing to the environment. Earth Day had just started, and I was motivated by the unity and energy of that event. So I decided to see how I could change my life on a personal level to live greener.
Cooper: How did you get started?
Begley: It wasn’t that hard—it came in stages. At first the adjustments were just small curiosities, to see if I could do it. When I wanted to start recycling, I found a recycling center. Then I kept adding things, like finding biodegradable soaps and detergents. I even found an electric car. Each time I did something new, it felt good. The changes even made economic sense—it was a win-win situation on every front. So I’ve kept at it for 36 years now.
Cooper: How did you find an electric car in 1970?
Begley: It’s a pretty funny story. You’d think it would’ve been more complicated, but I just opened the Yellow Pages. I looked under electric vehicles or electric cars and there were two listings. Oddly enough, I recognized one of the names—he was the stepfather of a kid I went to high school with. The guy lived in Reseda, California, and his name was Dutch—(laughs) it’s hard to forget a guy named Dutch. He sold these electric cars almost exclusively to people in retirement communities, with the exception of one customer—me!
Cooper: So you were all set for the golf course?
Begley: (laughs) Actually, the golf course is a whole different market. The models he sold were a little bigger, the kind you’d have for a maintenance worker at a big industrial plant. You could plug it in so it was always ready to go, throw a bunch of tools in the back and go around putting a lot of parts on. And then the other half of the business was in places like Sun City, Cathedral City and Palm Springs—elderly people who didn’t want the insurance problems and other hassles of a big car, who just wanted a tiny vehicle for going to and from the market. Plug it in, don’t have to go to the gas station. It was actually a perfect car for me at that time in L.A., because I just needed to go to and from the health food store and the laundromat. I had very simple needs, and it met them.
Cooper: At that time, did you think your environmental activism would ever catch on with the rest of the country? Or did you foresee it as a never ending battle?
Begley: I hoped everybody would see the sense in it. There were a lot of naysayers back then, and people can be gullible—even me. One guy even convinced me for a while that the electricity used for charging my car was making as much pollution as a gasoline-powered car would. And I believed him—he was insistent, and I didn’t check up on what he was saying. I just believed it because I knew there were other problems with the car as well. It had a short range, and it was slow. So I stopped driving it for a while. But then I started reading credible reports and realized that what he’d said wasn’t exactly true.
Cooper: How so?
Begley: His claim was that electrical plants created pollution whenever I charged my car. Well, everything causes some sort of pollution, but there’s still a difference in the extent. For instance, most cars are charged at night when the demand for energy is low. Electrical generators have excess capacity at that hour, so the electricity used to charge the car generates much less pollution than power used during peak hours.
Cooper: But did you read the study about bicyclists—the gas the bicyclists are giving off, depending on what they’ve eaten… ?
Begley: (laughs) Believe me, I’ve considered that.
Cooper: What about the health benefits of environmentally-conscious actions like using electric cars? Have you ever compared the health of people living in a place like L.A. to people living in a cleaner environment?
Begley: The environment and health issues are related. That’s one reason I got involved in environmentalism— I had trouble breathing. I wasn’t asthmatic, but I still found the smog affected me. Later I learned that the pollution was searing our lungs. I heard an anecdote once, about a deceased teenager up in a morgue in Oregon. They didn’t have her name, so they just called her Jane Doe. The story is that during the autopsy somebody said, “Look at the lungs—if they’re really bad, she might be from southern California.” Supposedly that turned out to be how they made the ID—because the lungs gave them a clue where to begin to search. That’s about the saddest thing I’ve ever heard on so many levels. But that’s what L.A. is known for.
Cooper: Has there been any improvement with the new emissions laws?
Begley: The pollution levels have dropped some in the last decade, but we still top the list as the smoggiest city in the U.S. And if you look at the rest of California as a district, the San Joaquin Valley now is neck and neck with L.A., primarily because they’ve got a lot of agricultural dust. A lot of fuel emissions blow in from the Bay Area. And the oil industry in the Bakersfield area contributes as well. Bakersfield is now neck-and-neck with L.A. for air pollution, running fast to keep up.
Cooper: And you don’t want to run fast when you’re in that environment…
Begley: (laughs) Exactly!
Cooper: So beyond driving an electric car, what other changes have you made to help reduce pollution, for instance with your home?
Begley: Well, when I started driving electric cars again —because every credible study said there’s less pollution, even with fueling the electricity plant—I then thought to myself, Well, how about a way to charge it with no pollution? I’ll use solar power. So I installed two large solar panels and set up a solar electricity system for the house. Even before that, though, I had a solar system for hot water, which is cheaper than the full solar electric.
But before those big-ticket items, I’d already made a lot of smaller adaptations. First I picked all the lowhanging fruit, so to speak—the things that were easiest to implement, the cheapest, that would have a positive impact not only for the environment but also on my pocketbook. Right away, I put in compact fluorescent bulbs, installed energy-saving programmable thermostats, put in attic insulation and started riding my bike for transportation—all things that would give me a lot of bang for my buck. I think it’s important for people to know there are simple things they can do before jumping into a major investment like solar panels.
There are so many ways to make a positive impact. We make an effort to buy things made of recycled materials, which is one of the best ways to create a market for them and increase their availability. For instance, we choose recycled paper products. And when it came time to replace the old fence, I got one made from recycled vinyl, which I’ll never have to paint, nor deal with termite or water damage. It’s a lifetime fence. In the garden, I put in drought-tolerant plants. Rachelle has helped me, God bless her, to get it looking good, which will be great for the public to see as well.
Cooper: I understand you’ve also launched a line of environmentally friendly cleaning products.
Begley: That’s right. I started Begley’s Best almost two years ago. Theres a spot remover, an all-purpose cleaner, a glass cleaner and a concentrate. They are nontoxic, non-caustic, biodegradable and vegan, made from extracts of pine and palm, de-acidified citrus, maize, fermented sugar cane roots and olive seeds. The idea is to have a sustainable source of funds for environmental causes.
Cooper: Where can people buy the cleaners?
Begley: At Whole Foods, online and several other stores.
Cooper: It sounds similar to what Paul Newman does with his products—a wonderful, socially conscious business model.
Begley: Yes, I think so too.
foreword by Kanani Fong