The actor, environmental advocate, and EV enthusiast takes us for a spin in his cross-country car, and on a journey through EVs in his past.
Ed Begley Jr. is a contradiction. A self-described and bona fide nerd who had a friendly rivalry with fellow performative nerd Bill Nye (the Science Guy) over whose utility bills were lower, he also partied so prodigiously in the seventies that John Belushi told him to cool it. He’s a celebrity, but so similar to how we’ve seen him on screens large and small since the 1960s that he fools you into a sense of ease.
Also surprising, while he famously prefers to walk, bike, or take public transportation (even to the Oscars), Ed Begley loves to drive. He avoids air travel (carbon emissions), so takes his Tesla to jobs and engagements all over the country: Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Colorado. Asked what he does to pass the time, he says, “I just enjoy the scenery. I listen to NPR a bit. With the dog, it’s very pleasant, just driving and looking and thinking. Very meditative.” He boasts that for the last season of Better Call Saul, he didn’t fly to Albuquerque for shooting once.
When offered a ride through his Studio City neighborhood in his Tesla Model S, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to ride with a man so dedicated to traveling green that he bought his first electric car in 1970?
Actually, it was more of a cart. A modified Taylor-Dunn golf cart purchased from a guy named Dutch in Reseda. “I wasn’t making smog, so I liked it.” He used it on a first date with the actress Cindy Williams. Unfortunately, the distance and hills were more than Dutch’s creation could handle; Ed claims a kid on a Big Wheel passed them. There was no second date.
After selling the cart, Ed graduated to a series of “conversions,” electric vehicles bought from hobbyists and small businesses. A converted 1973 Subaru. A modified VW Rabbit he had for four years. “These were cars where you looked the other way with safety. … The brakes were not built for [the weight of the lead batteries]; you had to pump them like a stairmaster to stop.”
A “solar car” from Florida. A sporty gullwing-doored Bradley kit car in which he squired Annette Bening to the Oscars; she struggled to get out of it: “Very kind of her to still be speaking to me. Great lady.”
And then, famously, the EV1, a real General Motors production car. The EV1 was a “night and day” improvement from the conversions, “Proper braking. Proper design. Aerodynamic.” But still limited. The range was less than a hundred miles, and on the highway he stuck to the slow lane with hazard lights on, and drafted off semi-trucks when possible.
The EV1 was the victim in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, recalled and crushed by GM during the W. Bush days. Ed saw that “the fix was in” and moved to an electric Toyota Rav 4 in 2000. And he hasn’t looked back. He had the Rav 4 EV for eleven years. “You could buy a dresser at a swap meet and put it in the back.” He changed the batteries after nine years, an expensive proposition. But he’d saved a bunch over the years on maintenance. “No lube, oil change, fan belt, radiator flush, smog check valve job. Nothing for all those years.” He later sold it on eBay.
Ed’s actually quite proud of the economical attributes of his electric cars, several of which he sold for about what he paid for them. As an oft-struggling actor, he never had money to waste. Since the Rav 4, he’s had a Nissan Leaf, a Chevy Volt. A string of Priuses for his wife and kids, and finally the Model S.
“I never thought I’d have a car this comfortable in my life,” Ed says as the car rolls silently from the garage of his LEED-certified Platinum house, and past his trusty e-bike. “This is my forever vehicle.” He also teases that it’s substantially neater than his wife Rachelle’s Model 3, though both seem pretty near spotless. (The affectionate sparring between Ed and Rachelle was a highlight of their eco-focused show Living With Ed, which ran in 2007 on HGTV and 2009 and 2010 on Planet Green; it’s how they interact in real life.)
The car ride is too short to hear his many wild tales of life in Hollywood over the last fifty-plus years, but he kindly offers a copy of his upcoming memoir, To the Temple of Tranquility…And Step On It!, a self-deprecating trip through his friendships and run-ins with a startling array of luminaries.
As for the car, it is nice. While Teslas have become ubiquitous, almost mundane, that’s kind of the point. Electric cars aren’t a novelty anymore, and Ed notes that Tesla was absolutely a turning point. “The big thing for me is the ability to fast charge and the ubiquity of chargers. They’re everywhere.”
When he bought that cart from Dutch, the air in Los Angeles was a grotesque, toxic soup. Ed notes that LA has four times the people than in 1970, and yet the air is dramatically cleaner. “The things we hoped would work, worked.” Catalytic converters, unleaded gasoline, fuel efficiency, transit, walking, and biking. And yes, electric cars.
There’s a lesson in that for the challenges we face today. And there’s also a debt of gratitude owed to pioneers like Ed Begley Jr.