Actor Ed Begley Jr. talks career, activism with students

“St. Elsewhere” actor Ed Begley discussed environmental activism and green living with professor Mary Murphy’s “Entertainment, Business and Media in Today’s Society” course. (Krystal Gallegos/Daily Trojan)

In the basement of Wallis Annenberg Hall Monday night, longtime actor and environmental activist Ed Begley Jr. sat down with professor Mary Murphy’s “Entertainment, Business and Media in Today’s Society” class to discuss his career, activism and eco-friendly lifestyle with students and guests. Begley is best known for his role as Dr. Victor Ehrlich in NBC’s “St. Elsewhere.”

Begley kicked off the conversation by delving into the origins of his interest in energy conservation, which he attributed to his father’s frugal habits growing up in Sherman Oaks. He described his father, Ed Begley Sr., as a survivor of the Great Depression. Because of this, Begley Sr. instilled money and energy-saving habits in his son early on.

“[We] simply turned off the lights, turned off the water, saved string, saved tinfoil — all this environmental stuff that I’m known for, I got from him,” Begley said. “The most important thing he did was urge me to actually do something, not just talk about it.”

According to Begley, this conservation-minded upbringing mixed with growing up in smoggy Los Angeles compounded for an environmental consciousness that carried on through his adulthood. Begley said that he owned one of the first electric cars, which he bought when it was first released in 1970.

Begley said that he believes dramatic adaptations illustrating the environment could inspire others to take action, but only if executed correctly. He said that movies and shows where the environment plays an important background role, rather than the driving narrative, could easily influence others to minimize their own carbon footprints. As evidence, he cited when Henry Winkler’s character in “Happy Days,” best known as “Fonzie,” registered for a library card in one episode and caused  thousands of Americans to register for library cards in the following weeks.

He also touched on moments from his short-lived HGTV and Planet Green reality show, “Living with Ed,” where cameras documented the eco-friendly lifestyle that he and his wife maintain. He said that despite its short run, he still has people walk up to him in public and reveal that the show inspired them to purchase rain barrels, solar ovens and other eco-friendly hardware.

“All of a sudden, all of these people were doing these things because of our show,” Begley said.

Murphy also poked fun at a particularly memorable scene from the show, where Begley timed his wife’s shower to ensure she didn’t use too much water, which Begley happily assured was a one-time occurance.

“Full disclosure: I only did it once when the cameras were rolling,” Begley said with a laugh.

He also emphasized the importance of celebrities using their platform to promote climate science. For this, he compared climate scientists warning people about the impending effects of climate change to a fire marshal alerting people about a growing fire.

“If the fire marshal tells you there’s a fire in the basement, you can’t just go out and do your song and dance — can you?” Begley said. “You have to relay the message to the people.”

To conclude his talk, Begley left the audience with a single mission: fight fake news — especially when it comes to climate science.

“If you see something specious on the internet, go to a third party and verify it,” Begley said. “I do — if only we could get everyone else to.”