The Trivial Pursuits of Ed Begley Jr. - Rolling Stone
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The Trivial Pursuits of Ed Begley Jr.

The actor has settled down with a role on the hit series ‘St. Elsewhere’ and a family life away from Hollywood – but he’s still game for a rush or two

Ed Begley Jr., Doctor Victor Ehrlich, St. Elsewhere

Ed Begley Jr. as Doctor Victor Ehrlich of St. Elsewhere on June 27th, 1984.

Ron Tom/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

WE’RE PLAYING TRIVIAL PURSUIT IN ED BEGLEY Jr.’s living room, and I’m winning. The actor –– Dr. Victor “You’re a Pig” Ehrlich to fans of TV’s acclaimed St. Elsewhere series –– isn’t pleased. After all, this is his game. He tries to psych me out, deceive me, undermine my confidence, anything to win. And all with the polite air of a natural-born innocent. That’s how convincing an actor he is.

But then, Trivial Pursuit is not just a game for Begley. “Trivial Pursuit is my rush,” he says. He’s talking about the heart-pounding sensation one gets from instant gratification of all kinds. Begley knows about rushes. He’s a guy who has, at various times, gotten his from alcohol, poker, even compulsive cleaning.

Today, he’s a changed man: married for eight years, father of two kids, new owner of a rustic 1.3-acre spread in smog free Ojai, California, a ninety-minute commute to Hollywood. “I don’t want to be another boring recovery story,” he says, swigging on a natural grapefruit soda. “They all give me the willies.”

Not to worry. Ed Begley Jr. has life under control, but he still has a proclivity for addiction. This time, it’s Trivial Pursuit, with its instant answers for instant questions. This must be appealing to a man who lives with questions that have no easy answers.

Were his life to be divided into Trivial Pursuit categories, the Ed Begley Jr. Edition might look like this (see answers at end).

History: Who was born at Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital on September 16th, 1949?

It is hard for Begley to dig too deeply into his past. When he does, he remembers too many “injustices.” Some are the kind we all remember. But Begley could hardly have been prepared for what befell him when he was almost sixteen.

He was on his way to the speech therapist (he still slurs his s‘s) with his father, the late character actor Ed Begley Sr., who won the 1962. Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Sweet Bird of Youth. Ed Sr. seized that moment to hand his son the birth certificate he would be needing soon to apply for a learner’s permit.

“I opened up this document,” says Begley, “and I saw my dad’s name and signature, but there was no mother’s name and signature. I said, ‘Why isn’t Amanda’s name here? Did they erase my mother’s name when she died?’ And he said, ‘No, Amanda wasn’t your mother.’ In a very matter-of-fact way like that. So I said, ‘Oh. Who was my mother?’ He’s doing his cold thing, and I’m doing my ‘Well, that’s cool, whatever’ thing. He said, ‘Sandy’s your mother.’ “

Begley knew who Sandy was. He remembered her as a “friend of the family” who lived in New York. He and his year-older sister, Allene, had always had a strange and special affection for the tall, attractive blond who sent them Christmas toys and valentines. She was nothing like the sickly Amanda Huff, who was in and out of hospitals till she died of cancer when he was seven years old. Ironically, the six-foot-three-inch Begley resembles Sandy Sanders far more than his stocky father. Not only were he and his sister unaware that Sandy was their real mother, but Sandy was unaware that they were unaware. And as long as she didn’t know, Ed Sr. apparently didn’t think the truth was necessary.

If this seems insensitive, then you have to understand what kind of man Ed Begley Sr. was. Once a factory laborer in Hartford, Connecticut, where he met Amanda, Begley starred on radio and Broadway before finally making it in movies, playing misguided men who were as tough and angry as he was. By the time he won his Oscar, he was sixty-two. Such validation had taken him a lifetime.

He had been an alcoholic before Ed Jr. was born, and he married four times. That’s if you count Sandy’s flawlessly woven tale of a twenty-year-old actress who believed the middle-aged actor she was marrying in 1947 was a widower; when she subsequently learned that Amanda, though divorced from Ed, was indeed still alive, her deep disillusionment and sense of Catholic morality drove her to leave him, and this ended in Ed Sr.’s charges of desertion and a 1952 divorce.

But Begley has never seen any proof of this, nor has he been able to learn honest-to-God answers to crucial questions in his life: Were his parents ever really married? Did Amanda adopt him? Why all the secrets?

“You didn’t question Ed Begley,” says his son. “He had a temper and was very powerful. We had no Father Knows Best heart-to-hearts.” But Ed Jr. also waited eight years before confronting his mother, now fifty-eight and a science teacher at Quintano’s School for Young Professionals in New York. “I spent a lot of time not thinking about it. So it was not unusual not to talk about it. I’ve never really known what to do about anger –– tell someone about it or just hide it.”

So he blocked a lot from his mind. “I think separation from my real mother was traumatic,” he analyzes. “But I was not in a position to figure out this Baron von Munchausen tale about who was who. I mean, I was just trying to figure out how to get my homework done. I had my own kid problems going on. It was easier to tell them what they wanted to hear. But that led to a real confusion about truth and fantasy.”

Entertainment: In the Sixties, what actor played drums in a San Fernando Valley band called Four Bad Habits?

Begley wanted to be an actor from the age of five. “At seven, the age of reason, I really, really wanted to be an actor,” he says. So he went for his first interview. Nothing happened, but he kept trying. “For ten years, I had the stuffing knocked out of me. I couldn’t get arrested.” So his father got him an agent who got him a role on an episode of My Three Sons. He expected casting directors to start calling. But nothing happened again.

At the same time, Begley also persuaded his father to let him spend his senior year at Van Nuys High School, the alma mater of Robert Redford, Natalie Wood and Marilyn Monroe. After years in Catholic and military schools, Begley “just wanted to get a glimpse, from a distance even, of what a woman looked like.”

After graduation in 1967, he attended Los Angeles Valley College but kept the acting doors open. By that time, his father was on his final marriage, and Begley moved into his own apartment, where he discovered the joys of Lysol.

“I was fastidious to the point that I would clean ashtrays while people were halfway through their cigarettes,” he says. “One time I bodily carried a friend of mine out because she wouldn’t remove her boots before she entered. My fastidiousness got to be the thing of why I was interesting at college. So I kept it up to get attention, even when I wanted to let my guard down.”

Begley’s chief rival for campus clown was actor Michael Richards, late of TV’s Fridays. One night at a social gathering, Richards was in the spotlight and Begley started improvising with him. “It was one of those pure and wonderful times where it all worked,” says Begley.

They tried their luck at Doug Weston’s Troubadour nightclub in West Hollywood and had another rousing evening. “Doug offered us a contract,” says Begley. “They wanted to book us with Randy Newman.” But when it came time for a formal audition, they froze. “We were nineteen and scared. The improvs didn’t work, and we couldn’t believe it. But there are tricks to that, and we didn’t know them. We’d done well before and throught that’s the way it worked.”

After that, the pair performed sporadically. Then Richards joined the army. And since nothing was new with Begley’s acting career, he decided, “Enough already, I’ll be a cameraman.”

Sports and Leisure: Who got “wired” with John Belushi in Mexico in 1977?

Not long after Ed Begley Sr. died of a heart attack in 1970, a series of unsettling, seemingly unrelated incidents befell Ed Jr.: (1) While waiting to change buses on a South Central L.A. street corner, he was attacked by a gang of youths who beat him to the ground, kicked him in the head and stabbed him with a knife, collapsing his lung. (2) While performing standup comedy at the Troubadour, he ran out to his car wearing a policeman costume from his act, was arrested for impersonating an officer and spent the weekend in jail. (3) While driving his Karmann Ghia through an intersection, he was hit by a ’67 Olds, wound up in a cast from his chest down –– à la I Love Lucy –– and later learned his fractured femur was set wrong, so his left leg is now a half inch longer than his right, creating a wealth of back pains if he doesn’t wear a lift in his shoe. (4) While living in a Studio City, California, apartment, he discovered the severed segments of a human body sealed in a Hefty bag in the trash in the back alley.

“All this had Biblical proportions,” he says. “There are no accidents. I obviously wanted to live in turmoil, so I lived in turmoil. I know this now because none of these things happen to me anymore.”

But he didn’t know that at the time. With his father’s death still fresh in his mind, he found an anesthetic for his feelings. And at his alcoholic height in 1976, he was drinking a quart of vodka a day.

It was during that year, while he was playing Debralee Scott’s deaf-mute boyfriend on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, that he “went with” series costar Mary Kay Place. “Ed had women trying to save him all the time,” says the actress. “As much out of friendship as anything else. Here was a really good guy, who was smart, who was nice, whose soul and heart and spirit were as big as all outdoors. Obviously, he had this other stuff he needed to work through. So you empathize with that and you respond to it. But you can’t save people. They have to decide that this is what they need to do.”

Shortly after, Begley met his wife-to-be, Ingrid, while on an all-day bar blitz with singer Tom Waits. It was not love at first sight. She inadvertently tore the prized Fifties shirt he was wearing. But they were married within the year. Says Place, “I think Ingrid was the person God intended for him to be with. She let Ed figure everything out for himself. But she was there in the most supportive and unconditionally loving way.”

Begley agrees: “The only way people learn is through pain. When you have some pain, then you listen.” By 1977, the year his daughter, Amanda –– he swears there’s no conscious connection to Huff –– was born, his drinking days were numbered. (Of Bob Woodward’s account in Wired of his late-night escapades with John Belushi on location in Mexico for Goin’ South, Begley says: “A lot of the book is true, a lot is downright untrue, and there’s a lot that is misleading. For instance, I was never that much into cocaine. I’m so hyper to begin with, it makes me uptight. I did it, but my drug of choice was always liquor.”)

Finally, in 1978, Begley stopped completely. “I had tried time after time to just drink socially. That never worked. So I decided to try the absolutely all-or-nothing approach. You get to a point where you realize it’s battery acid why would I drink battery acid?”

Science and Nature: What addictive personality said, “If there’s a way to abuse maple syrup, I will find it”?

Begley’s gone overboard too many times in too many ways in his thirty-five years. And he knows it. He’s the first to admit he’s got an “addictive personality.” But it’s also what’s made him interesting, crazy and fun. And he knows that, too.

Take his TV-quiz-show habit, for instance. You name ’em, he’s appeared on ’em –– $25,000 Pyramid, Body Language, Wheel of Fortune, even Tattletales, for which he dragged along understanding Ingrid. Now, here’s a guy who has been singled out of St. Elsewhere‘s ensemble of actor’s actors for an Emmy nomination two years straight, who knows everybody in Hollywood, who can “work a room” like a college rush chairman and whose roster of actual friends reads like a postcountercultural Rat Pack: Jeff Goldblum, Jack Nicholson, Mary Steen-burgen, Buck Henry, Harry Dean Stanton, Place, Waits –– all serious artists who would sneer at the mere thought of indulging in such a kitschy Middle American ritual as a quiz show.

But Begley doesn’t care what anybody says, he loves the games. “I’m not trying to be cool or hip or off-the-wall,” he says. “I just like them. If I ever ever achieved the stature of a Jack Nicholson, I’d still do them.”

Geography: What actor thought the Pacific Ocean would engulf the San Fernando Valley in 1971?

“I had the misfortune of predicting the earthquake of 1971,” claims Begley. By February 9th, the day the Big One hit L.A., he had already sold his possessions, closed his apartment and taken out an and in the Hollywood Reporter bidding his farewell to Tinsel Town and announcing his departure for Boulder, Colorado. Some people thought it sounded bitter.

Actually he was somewhat frustrated by then. He had worked successfully as an assistant cameraman, sandwiching in occasional acting jobs –– a 1970 Disney film called The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, a few episodes of Room 222 (he later amassed 120 pre-St. Elsewhere TV parts).

Though Begley lived in Boulder for only six months, it was there that he made his first solo nightclub appearance in that hardest of all jobs, stand-up comedy. Inspired by the National Lampoon humor of the time, he raised corny vaudeville gags and cheap drug-culture jokes to new satirical heights. His act featured an uptight-cop routine, a postnuclear-kiddie-show bit, a spoof of Alistair Cooke reporting the terrorist takeover of Disneyland and an anticapitalist musician who played his body.

Spotted by Don McLean, he wound up opening for the singer, as well as for Canned Heat, Dave Mason and Barry Manilo, at New York’s Bottom Line and Max’s Kansas City, Nashville’s Exit/In and other clubs around the country. At his peak in 1974, he opened for Loggins and Messina, Poco and John Sebastian before 18,000 people at Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum.

Mary Kay Place, who saw him at the Troubadour, says, “It was a complex act. Very clever. But if the audience was not real hip, they wouldn’t get a lot of stuff.”

By 1975, Begley didn’t seem to be on his way to a hit TV series like Freddie Prinze. “I analyzed my act and found it to be very negative. It frightened me. I didn’t see it as uplifting,” he says. “I also realized the best I could do with this was to go to Vegas and open for the Captain and Tennille.”

So Begley dropped the stand-up act and returned to L.A. for the role of a Birmingham, Alabama, country-club type in Bob Rafelson’s Stay Hungry, with Jeff Bridges and Sally Field. “That got me back in the mainstream of Hollywood. I met Rafelson’s crowd and got to know Jack Nicholson, who has been very helpful to me.”

It was Nicholson –– who grew up with a maternal mix-up of his own –– who directed Begley a year later in Goin’ South. Following that, he established an offbeat comic presence in so many split-second screen appearances and eccentric character roles that one could create a cult-movie retrospective: Ed Begley Jr.: A Study in the Cameo. There was the drummer who self-destructs in This Is Spinal Tap; the surrealistic beggar in Streets of Fire; the swinging single in Eating Raoul; the CB-toting priest in Handle with Care; the hero’s sadistic father in Young Doctors in Love. He had his arm ripped off in blood-gushing splendor in Cat People and got screen credit just for revoicing an instructor in the altitude-training scenes of An Officer and a Gentleman. And this winter, he will be seen as a White House staff member harassing Goldie Hawn in Protocol.

“I have a very simple career strategy,” says Begley. “I won’t accept anything on a McDonald’s bag or anything handwritten. As long as the contract is typed, I’ll show.”

Art and Literature: Alan Watts’ book ‘This Is It’ changed what actor’s life?

Begley listens to classical music as he winds his Volvo past olive trees and orange groves, ascending the lazy slopes that overlook Ojai Valley and Lake Casitas. His pastoral new world seems a far cry from the traffic of the San Fernando Valley neighborhood where he grew up and where he now works on St. Elsewhere.

“The series has single-handedly changed my career,” he says. Originally rejected for the doctor-turned-rapist role of Peter White, Begley was luckily called back to read for the one-shot role of pseudo-swinger surgeon Victor Ehrlich. Plans for the part expanded to six episodes and then to regular, though minor, status. But Begley was so at home as the surgical sad sack, and his Mutt and Jeff chemistry with veteran character actor William Daniels –– himself a moody Irishman like Ed Sr., though far more nurturing a father figure –– proved so rich, that the role grew beyond even the writers’ expectations.

But Begley is on his way home now to see his family after several days of filming the series. And it is at moments like this that he feels most serene. “I learned somewhere down the line, before St. Elsewhere, that this is it. There’s an Alan Watts book by that name, and without getting too spiritual, it basically says, ‘How do you feel right now? Have you eaten? Are you breathing? How about if you forget about the broken transmission or the problem with the boss? None of that really matters. The moment, right now, if you can just let it be, is really sublime.'”

At home, his father’s Oscar rests unobtrusively on the mantel. Somewhere, in a safe place, is the documented birth certificate his mother belatedly gave him several years ago (his father had shown him an incomplete hospital version).

As Begley walks through the door, he routinely reverts to his compulsive self. He puts his laundry in the washing machine, adds the powder and starts the wash, greets the family, gets the mail, returns calls on his cordless telephone, takes the car keys from his right pants pocket and puts them on his dresser, along with his money, which he keeps fastidiously in numerical order, with all the portraits facing the same direction.

Even at life’s most sublime moments, he still feels the need to maintain order whenever possible, to keep his guard up. Not coincidentally, his greatest pleasures involve such “tangibles” as numbers, gadgets, tools and all sorts of trivial pursuits that promise concrete results. He is still learning to live with the rest.

“Any bozo can go up to Big Sur and be serene,” he says. “It’s real nice up there. The trick for me has been to be serene at the corner of Sixth and La Brea with no good song on the radio. And I am, much of the time. I’m just out for progress, not perfection, and I feel I’m right on schedule.”

Answers: All Ed Begley Jr.

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