As he turned 70 on September 16, Ed Begley Jr. seemed to have it all worked out. “Everything that’s happened to me over the past 70 years has all been essential to having the serenity and joy that I possess today, which is a lot!” the star exclusively tells Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. And who would doubt him? After being nominated for six Emmys for his breakout role in the 1982 – 1988 hospital drama St. Elsewhere, he earned a seventh this year for his short-form comedy series ctrl alt delete.
His new ABC comedy, Bless This Mess, was picked up for a second season, and Ed remains passionately devoted to environmental work, which he chronicled on his 2007 – 2010 reality show Living With Ed and the docuseries he’s hosted since 2013, Innovations with Ed Begley Jr.
We caught up with the actor to discuss his childhood in Hollywood, his start on My Three Sons, his own three kids and his wife of 19 years, Rachelle Carson-Begley, 59.
“If it all ended tomorrow, that would leave 52 years in which I’ve had blessings beyond words,” he tells Closer. “I’m as grateful a man as you’ve ever met.”
Scroll below to read our exclusive Q&A with Ed!
You’re starting Season 2 of Bless This Mess. What’s it been like?
When they cast me, I was over-the-moon excited because I hadn’t had a part this sweet in a while. It’s wonderful.
What’s been your favorite role so far?
Dr. Victor Ehrlich on St. Elsewhere, because of the quality of the writing and the actors, like Denzel Washington, Ed Flanders, Bill Daniels, Bonnie Bartlett [and] Christina Pickles.
You must know a lot of great actors.
I have known Jack Nicholson since 1972. He was good enough to give me a part in his [1978 comedy] Goin’ South — he was a wonderful director, wonderful to act with and he’s been a good friend. I had the pleasure of working with Bob Hoskins, Michael Caine, Joaquin Phoenix and a genius artist, Meryl Streep. There’s no one more talented. [My frequent costar] Jeff Goldblum has been a dear friend since 1974, so I feel very close to him and his family.
We know your late dad, Ed Begley, from 12 Angry Men and his Oscar-winning role in Sweet Bird of Youth. Did he influence you?
I wanted to be an actor from the earliest age, but I hadn’t a clue what was involved. My father was one, and I thought, “That looks easy, so I’ll get a job on Gunsmoke.” Imagine the son of a plumber saying, “I’ll just ride on a truck and figure it out.” You have to study. After years of trying to get a job, working as a cameraman and never getting one single day’s work, I took some modest training and, of course, began to work soon thereafter in 1967. And I’ve worked ever since.
Did any moment set you on your path?
Getting that first small guest part on My Three Sons in 1967. I had a paper route at the time that was my main source of income. So I left my makeup on when I did it, hoping somebody would go, “Are you an actor?” [Laughs] I wanted all the trappings that went with it — the recognition, what have you. Fortunately, I was able to alter my priorities and become more interested in the quality of the work than fame and fortune. That coincided with a wonderful opportunity in 1982 for St. Elsewhere — I got an Emmy nomination each of the six years I was on it. I was one of the luckiest guys I’ve ever met, and smart enough to know it.
You’re very different than your dad, but was it hard to break out of his shadow?
There was a self-imposed impediment, because I thought about that for years — that I’m not my father’s son, he’s wonderful and how can I fill his shoes — until I realized there were nothing but positive aspects to being his son. People remember your name, which is key to getting work. They have something to talk about in the interview. They’re inclined to like you. You won’t get a job just because you’re a “son of,” but you’ve got that door open. When I woke up to the fact that there were nothing but positive aspects to being his son, things got very easy.
You’ve talked about meeting your second wife, Rachelle, at a 12-step recovery meeting nearly 30 years ago. Did that shared experience help strengthen your marriage?
We had a common language and understanding of recovery, so it drew us together — something we celebrate and share a deep understanding about.
What’s the secret to your 19-year union?
Our sense of humor — Rachelle and I laugh regularly. Absolute honesty is key. I was married once before, and I wasn’t as mature as I am now, so I’ve been doing a better job.
How were things with your first wife, Ingrid Taylor, after the divorce?
We had 11 years and two wonderful children together. She sadly passed away in 2006 and it was devastating, because I was very close to her during and after the marriage.
How are your kids doing?
My daughter Amanda, who’s 42, works for an environmental nonprofit which is a center for climate protection. My son, Nick, who’s 40, gave me two wonderful grandchildren [Allison, 16, and River, 11]. He works as an electrical engineer and he’s brilliant, much smarter than I ever was. And my daughter Hayden lives at home with Rachelle and I. She’s now working in the writer’s room on Bless This Mess, learning about that process.
The environment is very important to you. How did that start?
I lived in the San Fernando Valley [California] in the ’50s and ’60s, and we had horrible, choking smog. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire, so when the first Earth Day came around in 1970, I was ready to do something and not just complain about it. I started composting, became a vegetarian, riding my bike when weather and fitness permitted. Taking public transportation, home gardening and composting — all that stuff saved me money, and I had enough left over to buy a Taylor-Dunn electric car in 1970.
Any life lessons you’ve learned?
I’ve learned to literally grab moments as they come by. There’s a saying in Eastern philosophy that I’ve embraced: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” Take a moment to look at the panorama where you are today. I have everything I need, and that’s the gift of having kids.
You’ve turned 70. Do you have a bucket list?
No, I’m so grateful with what’s occurred thus far. I’ve done more than I’ve ever dreamt I would do. I’m not going to be greedy!
For more on your favorite celebs, pick up the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now — and be sure to sign up for our newsletter for more exclusive news!