Remembered as the neurotic-but-talented Dr. Victor Ehrlich on the critically acclaimed ’80s hospital drama St. Elsewhere, Ed Begley Jr. has come into his own as an environmental activist. While he continues to find regular work on TV and film, Mr. Begley is better known these days for his work with the Environmental Media Association and authoring a series of green-themed books, including Ed Begley’s Guide to Sustainable Living.
The 63-year-old will be in Vancouver on Friday to deliver the keynote speech at the B.C. Land Awards, which recognizes leadership and innovation in sustainable land use. He spoke to The Globe and Mail from his solar-powered home in Studio City, Calif, which he shares with actress wife, Rachelle Carson, and their 13-year-old daughter, Hayden.
Over the years, you’ve filmed a number of projects up here, but your other B.C. connection is David Suzuki.
I met David years ago through a group called ECO – the Earth Communications Office. I got to know him in the late ’80s, back when he was talking about some of the things that we feared might happen in the future that are now quite evidently happening, like climate change and loss of Arctic ice, and plastics in the ocean.
As a geneticist, he had the credentials to talk about these things in a way that an actor or director or screenwriter could not.
You’ve been an environmentalist for 40-plus years – what motivated you to get involved back then?
It was very immediate and real threats to health, namely smog. I grew up in smoggy L.A. In the ’50s and ’60s, I didn’t need to read the studies: You could feel it in your lungs as you tried to take a breath. As a teen, I knew there was a problem.
For all its environmental pioneering, California is still very much a car culture. Vancouver city council has, controversially, installed a series of dedicated bike lanes – taking lanes away from cars. Would that fly in L.A.?
I don’t know, but I’m an advocate of that. One of the most insane things I’ve witnessed for many years – and I don’t know how I’d explain it to intelligent life in the universe that landed here – is this: “There’s this guy here who drove his BMW 10 or 15 miles to the gymnasium. He walks inside – and what does he do once he gets there? He gets on a bicycle and pedals, going nowhere. And what do we do with that energy? Nothing.”
You, on the other hand, are well-known for showing up at Hollywood events on your electric bike.
I ride my bike for transportation a great deal – occasionally I ride it for fun. But I also have a generator bike that’s hooked up to my solar battery pack, so if I ride 15 minutes hard on my bike, that’s enough energy to toast toast, or power my computer. So my stationary bike is actually doing something.
Do your friends think you’re a little crazy?
I don’t have to go to my friends to seek such an opinion. My own wife thinks I’m totally insane. She cares about the environment, but she ain’t going to ride a bike to make toast.
Your environmentalism predates your celebrity, but Hollywood has long had an affinity for environmental causes. What are the risks when celebrities get involved in a certain cause?
There’s certainly a downside to your career – and you pay the price, one way or another. People going to your movies or watching your shows. People who sit on a certain side of the aisle start vilifying you on Fox News and on Rush Limbaugh’s show and start writing in to the networks.
Have you personally experienced that?
Oh yes, I’ve been on the boycott lists for years. They like to hit back when you go after their precious oil companies. But I still work enough to make ends meet – I live a very simple life here in Studio City, so I can get by with very little.
Entertainment Weekly recently did a photo shoot with the cast (minus Denzel Washington) of St. Elsewhere for their “reunions” issue. Any discussion on the set of an actual TV reunion?
No, but if someone had a very clever idea, where they would bring some of those characters together, perhaps they might get some interest from the cast members. But I don’t know that they should do it just for the sake of doing it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.