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Rendering unto Cesar

As the 10th anniversary of his death nears, farm-worker leader Chavez is respectfully recalled in a musical by a man whose activism he helped shape: Ed Begley Jr.

March 09, 2003|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

"You seem like you're trouble," growls the sneering rancher, towering over the uppity field worker. "Are you trouble, Chavez?"

Something is amiss about this "rancher." He's wearing a "Green Power for Green L.A." sweatshirt -- along with shorts, athletic shoes, white socks and thin-rimmed glasses. Hey, isn't that Ed Begley Jr., the eco-activist and screen star who is probably most famous for the TV series "St. Elsewhere"?

With his overall "Doonesbury" look topped by a shock of surfer-blond hair, Begley is not likely to be cast as an abusive rancher who's picking on the young Cesar Chavez. In fact, he is simply filling in at a rehearsal for an absent actor.

It's all a part of his work as the co-producer, director and writer of "Cesar and Ruben," a musical about the life of Chavez, as moderated by the ghost of the late reporter Ruben Salazar. Featuring a collection of cover versions of popular songs from a variety of pop artists, the production opens Friday at El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood.

The show will commemorate the 10th anniversary, on April 23, of the death of the United Farm Workers leader -- and it's not a moment too soon, Begley says.

When he was searching for music for his show, Begley entered a specialized record shop in L.A. and asked the clerk, who appeared to be Latino and in his 20s, if he knew of any recordings of corridos about Cesar Chavez.

The clerk thought he was referring to boxer Julio Cesar Chavez.

"It's bad enough if I would get this from a pimply-faced kid in Woodland Hills," Begley recalls. "Maybe the clerk was a recent immigrant from Central America. But it's just not right that people don't know about Cesar Chavez."

Begley, now 53, wasn't far from being the Woodland Hills kid he describes. He grew up in Van Nuys. His father, Academy Award-winning actor Ed Begley, was a conservative Republican.

But the younger Begley read and saw news reports of Chavez in the late '60s, "and I immediately embraced his cause," he says. His own gardening in his family home taught him that tending crops was hard work. And he admired Chavez's tactics. "He was fasting to send a message of nonviolence, and that grabbed me. I stopped buying grapes in 1968." In retrospect, Begley figures that service as a devout Catholic altar boy also influenced his respect for Chavez, whose Catholicism was an important part of his beliefs.

A surprise encounter

During the '70s, environmental causes took up most of the time Begley spent on activism. But in 1985, while eating oatmeal at Pann's coffee shop near LAX, Begley noticed that a fellow customer, with "a very modest car," looked like Chavez. When the man walked by, Begley knew it was Chavez. The actor followed the labor leader to his table and introduced himself. Begley asked Chavez if it was OK yet to buy grapes. No, replied Chavez, explaining the union's campaign against pesticides in grape fields. Begley began to appreciate the ties between Chavez's struggle and environmentalism and started working with the UFW on pesticide issues.

Chavez often reminded environmentalists that people -- as well as other organisms and the Earth itself -- were in danger from ecological abuses, Begley says. In 1991, Chavez and Begley were on a panel at an environmental film festival in Colorado, "and Cesar kept bringing the focus back to how people were affected." After the panel, the two of them adjourned to a church across the street and talked for a half-hour "about what spirituality meant to him and how we had to protect God's creation. It was a time I'll cherish forever."

Two years later, Begley was one of 40 pallbearers who carried Chavez's casket through the streets of Delano.

Not long after Chavez's death, Begley was listening to a recording of David Crosby's "Hero" and was reminded of Chavez. "That song could be in a movie or a play about him," Begley remembers thinking.

A little later, he had the same thought while listening to Sting's "Fields of Gold." Then it was a Tracy Chapman song, a Peter Gabriel song, one from Van Morrison, and "after about a year, I had assembled a list of 10 songs" that would meet his requirements of a musical about Chavez.

He began writing. But when he talked about his project to his friend Tom Soto, an environmental consultant who also knew Chavez, Soto told him there was a problem. There were no songs in Spanish. While Chavez had eclectic musical tastes that extended beyond Latin music, Begley says, he certainly didn't scorn the music from the culture in which he was raised.

Begley had little background in Latin music. His Spanish, picked up from trips to Mexico but without formal study, consisted of "400 nouns and one verb that I can't conjugate -- quiero" ("I want" or "I love"). However, he knew Ruben Blades, and Blades agreed to let Begley use two songs. He learned about another song in Spanish from a Linda Ronstadt album. Gradually, Spanish songs joined the script (they will be supertitled in English at El Portal).

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