An Interview with Ed Begley Jr.
Updated: Mar 31
Ed Begley Jr. is a seven-time Emmy nominated actor. He has appeared in numerous acclaimed series such as St. Elsewhere, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development and The Office. Most recently he has had recurring roles in Young Sheldon and Better Call Saul. He has also starred in films including Pineapple Express, Buddy Buddy and The Accidental Tourist. Not only has Ed has worked across the board in TV, film and theatre, he is also an impassioned environmental advocate and is the creator of Begley’s Earth Responsible Products.
I spoke with Ed about launching Begley’s Earth Responsible Products, what the film industry can be doing to reduce its carbon footprint, his career as an actor, and working with Vince Gilligan.
Could you tell me more about Begley’s Earth Responsible Products?
It started in 2004. I met a guy at a vegan restaurant in LA. He said he’d been trying to reach me, as he had these very clean green cleaning products. He wanted me to help him promote them. I was looking for green products at the time, so we started doing it. I misunderstood at first, thinking I was going to be more of a spokesperson. But the way it worked, he said he was going to sell me big drums of it and then to find a bottler and they’ll bottle it up for me. So, I had a bunch of stuff in my garage and I did that for years. My daughter helped me sell it.
I got really busy with my acting career and I couldn’t do it anymore. Then, I met this wonderful guy named Mark Cunningham. Mark had a company called Lab Clean Inc. We had worked on another project, a waterless carwash. We started selling these cleaning products and it did very well. Mark had the resources to not just store and bottle it, but he also had wonderful third-party testing, from EPA Design for the Environment. We weren’t just saying it was clean and green, it really was every bit as clean as any rigorous testing could prove. We are selling it on Amazon and other places. It’s doing quite well and is available worldwide. There are lots of alternatives out there, lots of other green products. I like all of them, but I think ours is the best. We have a pet stain remover which is the best I’ve ever encountered. Get one of them where you live and it is a good way to keep the environment clean and to protect your animals and your young ones. You have got to be very good and very safe on the environment and we tick both boxes.
What do you think the film industry could be doing to reduce its carbon footprint?
We have gotten better, I’ll say that. Every industry needs to do more and we are certainly one of them. The irony was not lost on me in the early ‘90s when I started getting invited to these events to protect the rain forests that they’d have on the studio lots. I was happy to be there and write a check to help promote saving the rainforests, but we were using a plywood called Luan, which is a tropical wood. We were using it to build our sets and then throw them away and not recycle the sets and use them for other things. So, let’s find a different way. A more recycled material perhaps, or something that is more sustainable than Luan. Then, we won’t just be having a fundraiser event where we are creating a problem for the environment. The Environmental Media Association and Earth Communications Office, those kinds of groups got a lot better when they realised that they needed to walk the walk and not just talk the talk, but to do everything properly themselves. Most movie studios now are doing a very good job. A lot of the independents are going down different green check-lists. For example, energy efficient transportation to and from the set, recycling on set, recycling in the production office, energy efficient lighting in the production office, recycled paper, biodiesel generators, LED lights instead of Tungsten lights. Bit by bit and slowly but surely. Starting in the early ‘90s, movie studios started to do a lot of those things and in some cases, they were saving money. There is nothing wrong with that!
You bought your first electric car in the early 1970s?
I did. I started with the first Earth Day in 1970 and people wondered why I got started that long ago. 1970 would mark my 20th birthday. I turned 21 later that year, but during Earth Day I was 20 years old and I’d lived two decades in smoggy LA. I’d had enough already. I’m not asthmatic, but every day would have shortness of breath.
Here’s a thing that people need to hear more than anything: there is good news out there too. We have proven that we can do it and do a great deal more. We have four times the cars and millions more people since 1970, but a fraction of the smog. It’s still bad around parts of Los Angeles, ports taking a brunt of all this shipping going through etc. There are still things we need to fix and we are not done. The air in Studio City where I live and many parts of LA, is much better because of what we’d done and what we hoped would work has worked. For example, smog control on vehicles, cleaner power plants. Now we have to stay with it and clean up every day in LA and around the world.
What changes in personal habits can we all be making to help?
I’ll be honest, I had it wrong for a while. I thought I’d just ride my bike and take the bus and anybody who wants to join me, then you are welcome to. I overlooked the obvious. I knew it to be true, but I didn’t talk about it too much. The three pillars (and they are all connected):
One is personal action. The second is good legislation: the clean air act and that’s how, with personal action, the clean air act got to clean up the air in LA. Thirdly, corporate responsibility: companies making cleaner power-plants and cleaner cars and they all relate to each other.
People like me in 1970 were interested in electric cars. Eventually someone started making them in greater quantities so they could hopefully one day turn a profit. If you get enough people that are wanting to find solar panels, you might get a solar panel built, or promoted within the House of the Senate of the United States. All that stuff works together. Three, not one, or you can’t do anything.
Was your father a big advocate on your views on climate change?
Without meaning to. By that I mean he was a conservative that liked to conserve. He’d turn off the lights, turned off the water, saved string, saved tin foil. He was the son of Irish immigrants and had lived through the Great Depression. He simply didn’t waste. That was the way I was raised. He died that year in 1970, within a few days of the first Earth Day. I did a lot of this stuff to honour him as much as anything. It was literally the reason I looked in the yellow pages to find someone who was selling electric cars.
It was 1970. I looked under electric vehicles and there was a little thing that said electric vehicles. Dutch was his name. I can’t remember his last name, but Dutch was selling electric vehicles mostly for retirement communities. I was the only person under 65 that bought one from him. I bought it for $950. Right away I loved it. Why? It was cheaper than buying gasoline. Same as it is today. I’ve owned many electric vehicles since. They are quite sophisticated now. I drive a Tesla, which is a magnificent vehicle.
I can’t help but notice the Oscar in the background…
That was my father’s Oscar. He won it for Sweet Bird of Youth, for Best Supporting Actor in 1962. He received it in 1963 and I was a very proud son that day and have been proud ever since. A great actor, great man and a great father. He left me his Oscar in his will and I show it off to this day.
Is that what made you want to pursue a career as an actor?
Absolutely. I’m convinced that if my father had been a plumber, I’d be fitting pipe now. I wanted to do what he did. I don’t know if I’d have gotten the bug on my own, but it’s possible. In my foolishness I thought it looked easy. Get me a series on Gunsmoke or one of those shows and I’m ready to go. I’m sure I can do that. I had no idea that there was a skill and training involved, so I didn’t get any work and nor should I have. I took some training and some classes and I began to work.
Could you tell me about your partnership with Michael Richards at the beginning of you career?
I had done a play a Strindberg play at the Valley College in the San Fernando Valley in LA, called Creditors. I crashed and burned. A few good friends told me the truth about how bad I was. I vowed never to do that again, so I tried out the next play that was being cast. It was Summer and Smoke, the Tennessee Williams play. I was one of the three leads in the Strindberg play, but I tried out for a small part to get my footing. I tried a new concept, which was actually learn my lines before I went on stage. I started preparing as an actor and got more serious about it.
Reading for the lead and getting the lead in that play was this new guy from Thousand Oaks, called Michael Richards. He had something that nobody else had. He was wonderful. I also quickly learned that he was a gifted comedian. Somehow, he chose me to be his comedy partner. We started jamming one night and I somewhat kept up with him. We went on at The Troubadour, The Icehouse, and The Comedy Store the week that they opened. We did that for a while and then he got drafted and went off to the military. He wrote plays about race relations and drug abuse while in the military. So, I was on my own and wrote a solo act for myself. He came back and we gave it another try, but he was destined for greatness and went on to do a show called Fridays and then eventually Seinfeld. He earned a place in TV history with his wonderful character, Kramer. A very funny man and fine actor.
You portrayed Clifford Main in Better Call Saul. What was the process like working with Vince Gilligan?
I idolised him. I loved Breaking Bad, as everybody did. Then, I heard there was a part and I read for it. It was for the part of Jimmy McGill’s brother. After I read for the part, Vince said there was a problem. There was a wonderful actor and he had promised him a long time ago that they would work together again. He made up his mind and he rightly chose the better performance, Michael McKean. Whenever Michael gets a part that I don’t, I really couldn’t be happier. He’s married to my dear friend, Anette O’Toole. To even be considered in the same category as Michael McKean, I’ve already won.
Then I got a call about playing another part in that same wonderful show and that’s something that never happens. I was on four of the six seasons, doing multiple episodes. How lucky am I to know Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould and work with them! They are both geniuses of the highest order. Now I can’t wait to see what they are going to do next. I’ll happily go and do craft service on that show. I just want to be around that kind of brilliance. I’ll be there begging for day work.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
I’m doing another show I’ve been on for a few years called Young Sheldon. It’s a prequel to The Big Bang Theory. I play Sheldon’s college professor. Wallace Shawn is also on it and he’s an old friend. Iain Armitage who plays young Sheldon is just wonderful. Everybody in it is great. It’s a treasure to be part of that family too.