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Ed Begley, Jr.

When This Screen Veteran Talks About His Commitment to the Environment, He Isn't Acting

In Hollywood, where environmentalism is chic but lip-service is the pervading reality, Ed Begley, Jr. is one actor whose uncompromising personal commitment goes without saying. To say that Begley practices what he preaches is putting it mildly. His ranch-style solar-energized home in the San Fernando Valley is entirely off the power grid. With rare exceptions, Begley refuses even to ride in a gasoline-powered automobile. He drives an electric car to film shoots. On the road, he takes public transportation or peddles around a fold-up bicycle that can be assembled in 20 seconds. Begley's weekly generation of garbage fits snugly into the small glove compartment of his electric car; he recycles or composts nearly all of his household waste.

Best known for his starring role on the TV series St. Elsewhere, Begley is also one of five appointed Environmental Commissioners for the city of Los Angeles and currently sits on the boards of five environmental organizations - The American Oceans Campaign, Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, League of Conservation Voters, Environmental Research Foundation and the Walden Woods Project.

The son of an Academy Award-winning actor, Begley began his career at age 17 as a guest star on the long-running TV series My Three Sons. Besides his acclaimed portrayal of Dr. Victor Ehrlich on St. Elsewhere, for which he received Emmy nominations every season, Begley has gone on to appear in dozens of films and TV series. His leading movie roles include Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills, The Accidental Tourist, She Devil and Meet the Applegates.

E Magazine recently caught up with Begley at his temporary living quarters near Harvard University, during a respite from his starring role in the acclaimed David Mamet play Cryptogram. Over a vegetarian lunch, the actor spoke out about his impassioned activism, electric vehicle mandates, Hollywood's "schizophrenic" ecological activism, and more.

E: How was it that you became such a wonderful fanatic about the environment? Was it something that happened in your early years, or something you read?

BEGLEY: It was a series of events, but a big part of it was scouting in my youth. This was back in the late 50s when my family lived on Long Island. Anyone camping in those wild and beautiful areas couldn't help but grow up with a profound respect for natural systems. I doubt if John Sununu or Rush Limbaugh were ever in the Boy Scouts.

When I was about 13, we moved back to California where I was born and I saw the way the San Fernando Valley had already begun to change from a basically rural area to all these shopping malls. Plus, when I ran down to my friend's house, I found I could barely breathe. The smog was choking us in the early 60s. Then I'd go out to Santa Monica Bay and witness this incredible pollution.

In 1969 came those Hasselblad pictures taken during the first moonwalk, of this beautiful frail water planet in the distance. This had a profound impact on many people I knew - seeing the Earth as a whole, and us as a part of a finite region. By the time the first Earth Day happened in 1970, I was poised to really get involved. That's when I became a vegetarian, started recycling and composting, and bought my first electric car.

You bought an electric car 25 years ago?

Yep, it was a Taylor-Dunn, made by a company that's still in business. They basically built glorified golf carts for hauling stuff around industrial complexes. It cost me $900 or so. It was pretty slow and didn't go very far, but it met my needs. I stopped driving it after awhile, when somebody told me I wasn't really doing anything about air pollution because the power plant created just as much as an auto tailpipe. That wasn't true, but I didn't know anything about electric power generation at the time, or the plans put into effect a few years later to change over a lot of the coal-burning plants to natural gas and hydroelectric. The fact is, every study that's been done shows it's at least 95 percent less polluting to drive an electric car versus an internal-combustion engine. Do you realize that you use 25 percent of your gasoline in a big city stopped in traffic? Now I'm on my third electric vehicle, a converted VW Rabbit that runs like a top.

Do you have a recharging area at home? And what about the inconvenience of getting around L.A. to film shoots?

At night I just plug into a regular 110-volt outlet in my garage. And electric vehicle charging stations are popping up like mushrooms all over L.A. now, in key locations. You plug in for free, courtesy of the Department of Water and Power. Ninety percent of our trips are 40 miles or less. Well, even the most lame-ass electric car can go that far without a recharge.

The incentive plan in L.A. is to have electric vehicle parking spaces similar to those for handicapped parking, and to allow you to drive in the diamond lane on the freeways. All this is going to add up to people wanting these cars. If General Motors won't do it, then Peugeot has one coming out next year for $10,000. [Editor's note: Electric versions of the Peugeot 106 and Citroen AX with nickel-cadmium batteries are already on sale in Europe, though there are no current plans to sell them in the U.S. CALSTART's CITI two-passenger electric car will, however, be sold on the U.S. market by 1997 for less than $10,000.]

Why did the Big Three automakers resist - and help kill - the mandates in California and several Northeastern states that would require about 70,000 electric vehicles to be manufactured by 1998 and nearly a million by 2003?

They're resistant to change. They fought against seat belts and airbags, and they're fighting electric cars now. I've been told that a lot of the same individuals are on the boards of both the big oil companies and the automakers, which of course is one factor. But I can see why they're scared. California, Massachusetts and New York comprise 38 percent of the domestic market for automobiles. Even though the mandates call for only two percent of that 38 percent to be electric, that's still a big number.

I think the automakers are afraid of the same situation they ran into in the early 60s, when there was so much pressure to build a fuel-efficient car like the Volkswagen. The best they could come up with was the Corvair, which wasn't a very good car. So they said, see, it can't be done. Well, companies in Japan, Germany and other countries stepped in and gave us safe, fuel-efficient cars that ran very well. We've been playing catch-up ever since.

It's hard to know who will take the lead. Look what happened in the computer industry. Who was Compaq or Bill Gates 12 years ago? The big players a while back were RCA and Atari. IBM farmed out this whole "nuisance area" called software to Bill Gates, figuring they made the box and so were the ones in charge. That's been quite an upheaval. But certain departments at General Motors are actually gung-ho. Bob Stempel, who formerly ran GM, is now head of a partnership that makes a new nickel-metal hydride battery.

Isn't battery technology still the biggest obstacle to moving forward more rapidly, given the limited range of what's available today?

Yes, but that's changing. Stempel's Ovonics battery has tested out at a 200-mile range in one competition. There's another company, Electro-Source, that makes a sealed lead-acid battery that's easy to charge and is being made in quantity. If you put those batteries in the Impact electric car that GM is working on, I would guess you're going to get a 130- or 140-mile range.

But despite the advantages in terms of pollution, aren't electric vehicles really secondary to improvements in public transportation?

I agree. Electric vehicles do nothing to alleviate traffic congestion. I mean, the automobile was our dearest lover and now it's a fatal attraction of the worst order. In California, where the automobile was first promoted as the center of American life, that dream was also based on subterfuge and deceit. Back in the 1940s, this cabal of GM, Standard Oil of New Jersey, Firestone Tires and Mack Trucks bought up the public transportation systems not only in L.A. but a number of states. Now we're fighting tooth and nail in L.A. to try to build a 1990s version of the old red-car trolleys that they tore down. Nobody wants it above-ground anywhere near them, because there's no history that people remember. So you've got to dig a hole in the ground, which is a lot more expensive, and put the system down there. That's what we're faced with, because of what was foisted upon us almost 50 years ago.

Amazing, you may be the only person in America who takes his personal ethic that far. Getting back to the politics of all this, what do you think of the Clinton administration's Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, with this 80-mile-per gallon goal that is being called for?

I'm encouraged by that, though I don't want it to distract from the electric vehicle programs. Isn't it interesting that the auto companies claimed for years that they couldn't beat the laws of physics to make such a highly fuel-efficient car? Now they're saying, well, just get away from these damned electric cars and we'll give you an internal-combustion engine that gets 70 miles to the gallon. So why not do both?

Have you been disappointed with the Clinton presidency on environmental concerns, particularly since Al Gore came into the Vice-Presidency with such a strong reputation?

I've known Bill Clinton for years and I like him personally. When he was Governor of Arkansas, we used to play "Trivial Pursuit" together. But I don't know where the environment has ever fit on his agenda. I think that's something he has relegated to Al to handle, while he tries to get the economy fixed. I don't think Bill understands that the economy and the environment can both prosper if we're careful.

You were appointed last year as an Environmental Affairs Commissioner in L.A. Have you found the local bureaucracy to be much different than what Gore faces in Washington?

Absolutely not. Here I am this environmental radical, and I feel like a gnat riding on top of this behemoth, trying to just budge it an inch. For example, there's nobody who's opposed to this Greenways and bike-paths program I've been pushing for. You'd think it would be the simplest thing to accomplish - bring in the Army Corps of Engineers and jobs for youth to do these plantings. The city already owns most of the property. We even have a bike-riding mayor - that's how I met him. But nothing's being built; everyone just wants to study it to death. I haven't been able to get anything accomplished.

You must be frustrated with Hollywood's attitude towards the environment, too.

Hollywood has been schizophrenic about many things - recycling, energy conservation, rainforests. The motion picture industry has had these save-the-rainforest benefits on sound-stages that each saw the destruction of 60,000 acres of rainforest for lauan plywood. Well, all the studios are finally cleaning up their act and have made a commitment to stop buying lauan. A lot of this wood has been coming from Malaysia, and from Honduras in the past.

There are different kinds of wood for various applications the studios can use. Grid-Cor, for example, is made from recycled cardboard, with a glue-like material that's totally benign and extremely strong, and also very cheap. I visited their plant in Long Beach. Mitsubishi and a lot of the Japanese companies have been logging extensively to make plywood forms to set concrete. Well, Grid-Cor is set up to do that just fine, thank you.

Are there other people in Hollywood besides yourself who really practice what they preach?

Oh, yeah. Dennis Weaver is a tremendous environmental activist. He built this house in Colorado that's a showplace of new home construction. The basic materials he employed are used tires, which many places will pay you to take off their hands. You could build one of these Michael Reynolds' earth-ship houses for $40,000. People say, "But I don't want a house made of tires." Well that's like saying you don't want a house made of two-by-fours. Because you never see the tires - they're stuccoed over and just part of the inner structure of the house. The insulation factor is amazing.

David Zucker, a producer and writer [the Naked Gun movies, among many others] drives an electric car and built a solar structure at his place in Ojai, California, where he has personally been responsible for planting thousands of trees on his own property. Alexandra Paul, who's on Baywatch, is another. She drives an electric vehicle, recycles everything. Those are the people that jump to mind right away.

You've managed to get your own home completely off the power grid. How were you able to do this?

The challenge I set for myself in 1989 was to take an old Leave-it-to-Beaver-looking two-bedroom middle-class house, and make it completely energy self-sufficient. And it's do-able. I started off with the garage, then went for the whole enchilada with solar and energy-efficient appliances, double-pane windows. My little exercise bike has a generator that goes right down to the same battery array that stores the solar, so I'm actually putting power back in when I'm working out. All the nickel-and-dime stuff really adds up.

Are there any environmentalists who have influenced your own thinking a great deal?

David Brower. His organization Friends of the Earth was the first big environmental group that I wanted to be a part of. Their newspaper, Not Man Apart, really affected my awareness in the 70s and I've since gotten to know David. Also, reading Thoreau's works and his reverence for natural systems was a big impact. Then a few months ago, I went to an event sponsored by the Environmental Media Association in Hollywood and got to meet [former Soviet Premier Mikhail] Gorbachev. He started firing questions at me: how far and how fast does your electric car go, what about the solar panels, do they run your whole house?

Did Gorbachev know who you were?

No. Didn't matter. That's all I wanted him to know about me. Just a guy who tries to put his money where his mouth is.

DICK RUSSELL is a freelance writer based in Boston.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Earth Action Network, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:environmentalist actor
Author:Russel, Dick
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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