Ed Begley acts on his eco-beliefs

Ed Begley Jr. leads what seems an enviable life.

He has a show in its second season on HGTV called Living With Ed. Next month he's jetting off to New York to be in Woody Allen's latest movie. His résumé reads like a history of boomer TV, and the residuals from six years on the 1980s hospital drama St. Elsewhere still trickle in.

But when Hollywood friends come for parties, they often leave his home depressed.

"They look around at this two-bedroom, 1½-bath house in the (San Fernando) Valley and they say, 'Forty-one years in the business and that's all he has to show for it?' " he says, gesturing to his lovely but admittedly un-palatial 1936 home.

But Begley is living the green life.

The money others might spend on a fancy house and big cars, Begley, 59, puts to infrastructure. Solar panels on his roof track the sun. The latest electric car sits in his garage next to a bank of batteries. In the basement, a high-tech heating system uses sun-warmed water.

From the outside, his house wouldn't look out of place on the 1960s sitcom My Three Sons, where Begley made his acting debut at 17.

It was in the 1970s, when he'd graduated to pop-culture-icon shows like Room 222, Mannix, Adam-12 and Nanny and the Professor, that Begley reached a turning point. He'd grown up in Los Angeles, "choking on the horrible smog. By 1970, I'd had a bellyful," he says. He changed his life, adopting an eco-friendly lifestyle that was highly unusual at the time.

For the past 38 years he has stayed true to his beliefs, driving electric cars before George Clooney got his driver's license, eating vegetarian before Woody Harrelson eschewed meat, and diminishing his carbon footprint years before Al Gore spoke of inconvenient truths.

Begley says he has never been shrill about his beliefs. He just lives his life as he thinks is appropriate and lets others live theirs, giving advice only when he's asked.

But when a TV production company did the asking, his advice suddenly got a much broader audience. His show, Living With Ed, chronicles a low-carbon (him)/high-makeup (her) marriage to Rachelle Carson-Begley, and along the way shows regular people how they can "pick the low-hanging fruit" and live a greener, less-expensive life without moving into a cave.

He also has a new book out, Living Like Ed: A Guide to the Eco-Friendly Life (Clarkson Potter, $18).

It all started with friends Joe Brutsman and Tony Peck, who had been listening to Begley and his wife bicker good-naturedly for years over living well vs. living ecologically. In addition to being actors, they also produce shows, and they saw a serious-yet-funny show in their friends' marriage.

He takes Navy-style baths — a splash of water, soap up, quick rinse and out. She likes 30-minute hot showers. He rides his bike an hour and 10 minutes to studio meetings in Santa Monica. She wanted a Volvo. He's happy with the tiny-by-Hollywood-standards house he bought as an up-and-coming actor in 1988. She wants another bedroom and "please, God!" another bathroom.

But while his choices let Begley sleep better at night, what real impact do they have on our planet's looming environmental crisis? More than you might think.

"Ed Begley was one of the first people in Hollywood to start talking about the need to protect our environment," says actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio. "He has worked tirelessly to bring environmental awareness to the masses. He is a true green pioneer."

Early adopters of such practices "definitely make a difference," says Matthew Nisbet, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., who studies public affairs.

"Citizens who eagerly adopt environmentally friendly behaviors are what marketers call 'influentials.' These are everyday opinion leaders who, through the visibility of their actions or by talking up their opinions and passing on recommendations about products, influence neighbors, co-workers and friends," Nisbet says.

"People really do connect through personal stories. It's a very powerful way to move people from where they are," says Kevin Robert Gearny, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

Not just for the camera

And the Begley you see on the TV show isn't an act. In real life, he's just as much a stickler for things being done right, a "total type-A personality" by his own admission.

Starting an interview in his 1930s dining room with its rich aqua walls and white wainscoting, he has a hard time sitting still. After five seconds, he hops up to fetch a sponge from the kitchen to clean up some crumbs his young daughter left on the table.

It's easy to imagine him barking out orders on a film set, or running a Fortune 500 company. What's not easy to imagine is him sitting in a bus, caught in traffic, to get home from the airport.

This is, after all, a genuine movie star. This month he'll be shooting in New York in Woody Allen's as-yet-untitled movie. In May he'll be in Recount, an HBO movie about the 2000 presidential election. Begley plays Gore attorney David Boies.

But when he flies in from the other coast, that's exactly what he does, hoofing it out to the bus stop at Los Angeles International Airport and plunking down $4 for the bus to the San Fernando Valley.

That particular piece of his low-carbon saga started in 1990 when he got rid of his internal-combustion-engine car and exchanged it for the first in a series of electric cars.

Though, at least to his wife, the transition wasn't exactly a smooth one. "They lost juice. One caught fire in Laurel Canyon," she says.

But to Begley, it was a huge step in the right direction. He made a commitment to walk when he could, bike when he couldn't, ride the bus where he couldn't bike, drive his electric car where the bus didn't go, and use a (diesel-electric) hybrid car for long-distance trips.

Begley found his life underwent an enormous shift. He had to slow down. He couldn't have back-to-back meetings in Los Angeles; there had to be time to get from one to the other on the bus. He could do lunch in Santa Monica, but he needed time to bike there. "It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me," he says.

Home, low-carbon home

When Begley bought his house, he started making it energy efficient as cheaply as he could, beginning with simply replacing the filters on the furnace. His book starts out with the easy stuff: putting in a new thermostat, resealing the fridge, turning off the heated dry cycle on the dishwasher. "It's all the low-hanging fruit," the simple things people can do that will save them energy and money, he says.

It's a tack that might convince naysayers, says Gary Yohe, a professor of economics at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.

"People sort of roll their eyes and say, 'Ed Begley can do that because he's got tons of money, but I can't,' " says Yohe. But watching Begley hang wash on a fold-out wooden drying rack makes it less daunting.

By 1985 he could afford to add solar panels. As he got more money, he plowed it back into his house. He has insulated it three times, each time making it more energy efficient. In the latest round, he had a company that does energy audits go over his house top to bottom.

"They came in here with infrared viewers and showed me where there was no insulation, where the heat was leaking out from," Begley says with the stricken tone of someone told he has only months to live. His electric bill today is about $200 a year. He's aiming for $100.

Begley says he gets e-mail "all the time from people telling me they don't agree with my politics, but asking if I can send them information about our fence, which is made from recycled milk jugs."

Wife is light green

In the TV show and the book, Carson-Begley plays Begley's anti-environment foil, with a constant refrain of "more money for shoes and makeup!"

But in real life she's no "green" slouch. The couple met at an environmental event in 1993. She was named for, though isn't related to, Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, a book about pesticides that's credited with helping launch the environmental movement.

Begley had two grown children by his first wife when they met. Daughter Amanda is now 30 and son Nicholas is 28. But Carson wanted children. "I said no. I'm Mr. Zero Population Growth," he says.

But Carson-Begley did the math. She counted three adults — Ed, his former wife and herself, and three children — Amanda, Nicholas and one of their own to come.

Three adults producing three children is as zero-population-growth as you can get, she pointed out to him. Their daughter, Hayden, was born in 1999. "She's the love of my life," he says.

William Moomaw, a professor of international environmental policy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., speaks admiringly of the actor. "There are some people who have it and want to flaunt it."

But there are others "who have thought it through and say, 'We can't all live that kind of a lifestyle, it's too devastating, so I'm going to do something different,' " he says.

Begley, with his garage full of batteries, his wind turbine slowly rotating over the roof and his bike leaning against the house, is content with the non-excess of his life. "After all," he says. "I've never seen a hearse with a luggage rack on top."