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THE SUNDAY PROFILE

Rooted to the Cause : Ed Begley Jr. shines in a world in which some stars are environmentalists only when the cameras are on. He lives what he preaches.

April 14, 1996|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite his somewhat earnest public persona, the 6-foot-3-inch actor veers unexpectedly between statesman and stand-up comedian in casual conversation. As one of a core of celebrities who shows up regularly for progressive causes, he says, "I get literally a half-dozen requests a day--American Diabetes Society, Multiple Sclerosis, Debutantes for Peace, the Tofu Guild, the Geodesic Dome Society. . . ."

While his nerdy tortoise-shell glasses and penchant for goofy jokes have cast him naturally into such movies as "Shaggy Dog," he can cite such serious roles as the 1994 miniseries "When Lions Roared" with John Lithgow and Bob Hoskins.

The actor can discuss environmental deterioration without stopping, picking up steam like a seasoned salesman, and the topic he returns to like a leitmotif is transportation.

He traces the region's problems to the dismantling of the advanced red-car trolley system in the 1940s to make way for cars. "The automobile was our dearest lover and now it's a fatal attraction of the worst order," declares the actor, who thinks he is the rare environmentalist around who actively supports the Metro Rail subway: "Give me a shovel and I'll help dig, if you'll put it in my neighborhood!"

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 21, 1996 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 4 View Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Misidentification--Eco-Home, the environmental demonstration home in Los Feliz, was misidentified in the Ed Begley Jr. profile in the April 14 Life & Style.

He chaired the Transit Advisory Committee for the now-defunct Rapid Transit Authority and knows the bus system inside out, but he also understands the power of car culture. "People are resistant to change. They find solace in their one little bit of quiet time in their metal cocoon called an automobile."

Still, he shrugs, with millions of people heading to California in the next 10 years, we are going to need it all--the Red, the Green, the Blue lines; a bike plan; more electric vehicles and more buses.

Life in L.A. without an automobile poses inconveniences, but Begley, pressed to confess the downside, insists there are only "adjustments" and, for him, even benefits.

Because he has pared his expenses, for example, he can be more selective about roles. Last year, he starred in "The Cryptogram," a new play by David Mamet, whom he has long admired. The play, which opened in Boston and moved to off-Broadway, demanded a 6-month commitment.

"If I'd had the big house and the chauffeur and the chef and the channeler and the spirit guide, I couldn't have done it." Even without all those Hollywood embellishments, he adds, "I feel like I still have too much stuff. I'd like my life to be much simpler and I will get there. It is a process."

*

Wearing shorts and a "Recycle" T-shirt, Begley welcomes a visitor to his one-story house, tucked onto a corner lot shaggy with flowering and edible plants, citrus and banana trees. Surplus lemons are lined up on the peeling wooden fence for neighbors to pick up.

It's a 1930s-style duplicated all over the Valley. Only the photovoltaic panels on the roof hint that this ordinary structure is also a super-efficient laboratory for conservation. ("He's generating more electricity than we are," marvels Eco House's Russell.) Begley, who hasn't stopped at a gas station in six years and estimates that his annual utility bill is $50, doesn't think of the house in terms of a model: "It's a simple little structure that meets my needs."

He remembers smoggy Los Angeles summers from his childhood, which was divided between New York and Los Angeles depending on where his actor-father, Ed Begley Sr., was working. Although his father was a popular character actor, they lived in simple houses. "My dad had been through the Depression and he was a conservative Republican, which I'm not. But he took 'conserving' literally, and he taught me a lot in this area."

After his father won the Academy Award in 1962 for "Sweet Bird of Youth," they moved lock, stock and barrel to California, and Ed Jr. became a Valley boy.

He essentially was raised by his father, and it wasn't until he was 16 and found his birth certificate to get his driver's license that he was stunned to learn that the woman who had died when he was 7 was not his biological mother. "She was my stepmother: My real mother left when I was a year old. Her name was Allene Sanders, an actress, and she had been a family acquaintance." Despite the shock at the time, he says, he since has become good friends with her.

Begley got his first acting job at 17, but he also learned to be a cameraman and combined the two until about 1970. Never a leading man, he graduated from "whiz-kid best friend" roles to what he describes as "small but noticeable parts."

But the role of Victor Ehrlich in "St. Elsewhere" was a defining point. The much-praised hospital series ran for six years and was a "tremendous bit of security," he says. A fellow cast member, Bill Daniels, gave him good advice: "Hey, kid, appreciate this while it is happening."

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