When actor Ed Begley Jr. turned 70, he decided it was time to get serious about passing on his favorite memories. “I figured I’ve got kids, I’ve got grandkids. I should write down some of these stories from my dad’s past and mine,” he tells Closer. Using a video recorder on his youngest daughter’s phone, Ed started telling tales. There were stories about growing up in Hollywood as the son of dramatic film actor Ed Begley. He reflected on his own early adventures following in his dad’s footsteps and the many friends (and frenemies) he’s made during his successful Emmy-winning career. “Pretty soon, I had 45 pages,” Ed, 74, recalls. He kept going, and the result is the St. Elsewhere alum’s new memoir, To the Temple of Tranquility…and Step On It! which recently became available from Hachette Books.
Did growing up the son of an actor influence your career choices?
“Yes, from around age 3, I said I wanted to be an actor. I was on the set a lot and fell in love with the business — from the technical end to the acting part. I started going on interviews around age 10 for commercials, but I never got any work.”
“Because I hadn’t trained. I finally took some acting classes and, lo and behold, I started to work.”
Did you have a backup plan in case the acting didn’t work out?
“Yes, I wanted to be a cameraman. I studied as a budding cinematographer and camera assistant and I got in the union. I even started to work as a cameraman — I loved it. Then I got a call to work on the show Room 222. After that, I became a steady working actor.”
Did your dad give you any advice?
“He said learn your lines and show up on time, very important things. He showed me how to hit my mark as an actor so the camera would be in focus and the lighting would be right and the soundman could get his boom in. Also, a really good thing to know.”
In your book, you write about friends and mentors. Who has been one of your greatest influences?
William Daniels is a great friend of mine. I met him on a medical show [St. Elsewhere] I’m not supposed to talk about because of the strike. He’s funny, brilliant, and his wife, Bonnie Bartlett, who also worked on the show, is a brilliant actress.”
You’ve been sober since 1979. Is that something you write about in your book?
“Yes, I take a pretty deep dive into it. For years, I said I was an addict and alcoholic for seven years — ’71 to ’78 — but that’s not really true. I did other things long before that. I was a compulsive gambler; I was incapable of being in a monogamous relationship because of my other addictions. There were a lot of lessons I had to learn in the ’80s and ’90s.”
What caused you to change your life?
It really happened in two steps. The first step was to have the DTs [delirium tremens] for the first time on a movie set. It was horrible. Then I’d just drink a Bloody Mary in the morning and ‘Hey, look at that, I’m fine.’ The second thing, when my daughter Amanda was 1 year old, I was at Cedars-Sinai because I had almost died from things I had ingested. She wanted to hold me, but she couldn’t get close to me because I had all of these tubes everywhere. That’s when I realized I had a problem and the growth began.”
Was it hard raising three kids as a working actor?
“It was a challenge because I would be called away for work a great deal, but I still managed to spend a lot of time with them because I had the good fortune of being a mostly supporting actor. I would work three days a week and I could be the dad in the neighborhood who would take them to Griffith Park for pony rides.”
“I had another child at age 50. I did fatherhood pretty well the first time, but a better husband this time, I’m a better father, and I get to be a pretty good grandfather as well. I have three wonderful grandkids. At some point, I’d love to have great grandkids, too. I hope I make it to that wonderful milestone. I’m just blessed.”
You said you are a better husband to Rachelle, your wife of 23 years.
“Yes, in my first marriage I thought the act of getting married would make me monogamous. I wanted to be monogamous, but I wasn’t emotionally capable of it. You have to put in the work, be a good partner, and it just comes down to honesty. Philandering is another form of addiction. It’s not just bad for the partner, it’s bad for the perpetrator, too. It made me feel [lousy] all the time. Who wants to feel [lousy] all the time? But from ’96 to date, it’s just been us, and that’s a pretty good way to live.”
You’re famously passionate about the environment. How did that start?
“I’ve got to credit my dad on that one, too. He sneakily taught me environmental responsibility through the lens of fiscal responsibility: We turn off the lights, we turn off the water, save strings, save tinfoil. He was the son of Irish immigrants and had lived through the Great Depression, so he didn’t waste anything. Also, one of the greatest lessons he ever gave me was when I complained about the smog. He’d say do something yourself about it — go to the board and testify — don’t just talk about it.”
What’s one thing people can do to help the environment?
“Not everyone can buy the fancy electric car or has 9 kilowatts of solar, but can you buy an energy efficient light bulb? If you like it, buy another. You can buy an energy saving thermostat. You can ride a bike if weather and fitness permit. You can take public transportation if it’s available near you. You can do home gardening or home composting. Everything on that list I just rattled off is very inexpensive and, most importantly, will save you money while you’re doing it! So you’re going to help save the environment and have some extra green stuff in your pocket called money. Pretty soon you can afford solar panels. “