His Old Man Was a Tough Act to Follow, but Ed Begley Jr. Is Finally a Big-Name Actor Too
The words still haunt him. Ed Begley Jr. is standing in the middle of his living room, doing an impersonation of his late father. "Ehhhhhddie!" he goes again. "Ehhhhhddie!"
In 1963 Ed Begley Sr., one of the most famous and commanding character actors of his time, won an Academy Award for best supporting actor in Sweet Bird of Youth, which starred Paul Newman and Geraldine Page. After that Begley never went anywhere without the Oscar. He carried it with him, took it on car trips and loved to have people take pictures of him with it. But there was one rule: Ed Begley Sr. would never let Ed Begley Jr. touch the Oscar. Never. Until one day when they were getting ready to fly to New York from L.A. Ed Sr. told teenager Eddie Jr. to hold the Oscar while he bought tickets.
"I was so nervous when he was gone that I dropped it and broke the base," recalls Ed Jr. "When he came back, he said, 'Okay, Eddie, I got the tickets.' " Then Ed Jr. lapses into the famous gravelly voice that made his father a star. " 'Ehhhhhddie, Ehhhhhddie, what have you done? You broke Oscar.' I was scared to death," continues Ed Jr. "My father had a temper. Fortunately, the Academy got it fixed for us."
Growing up in the shadow of a famous father is never easy, but it was especially difficult for Ed Jr., now 34 and one of the stars of NBC's hit series St. Elsewhere (he plays the bumbling Dr. Victor Ehrlich, a would-be womanizer who can't get along with his boss). For one thing, young Eddie found out at 16 that his real mother wasn't who he thought she was. Ed Sr., who married three times and raised four kids, had always said that his first wife, Amanda, was Eddie's mother. It was when Eddie Jr. got his birth certificate to apply for a driver's license that he learned the truth. His real mother was an NBC page and part-time actress with whom his father had had a long-standing relationship. Eddie Jr. had always assumed she was just a family friend. He says he was "angry and shocked," but did what he always did around his father. "I just said, 'Oh, that's okay. It's good to know who my mother is,' or something like that." Since then he has periodically visited his real mother, now a schoolteacher in New York, and rationalized his anger. "I think I got the best end of the deal, being raised by my father," he says now. "I think I did pretty good."
That may be true, but there were other rude shocks along the way to adulthood, not the least of which involved his acting career. Ed Jr. found his father's attitude about it mixed. Ed Sr. supported his son's early efforts, once even paying for acting lessons, but he also warned about the pitfalls. "He was totally legitimate about that whole subject. He knew it was a big struggle. He was in his late 40s before he had any real success, and he'd wanted to act since he was a kid. He wasn't bitter, but he recognized the struggle, and it was enormous."
Eddie Jr. had also wanted to act since he was a child. "It was so glamorous, the lights, the sets. I loved everything about it." At 17, after graduating from Van Nuys High, he enrolled in a San Fernando Valley junior college, majoring in cinema. He soon dropped out to take a job as a cameraman, working on documentaries, commercials and low-budget features. He also picked up bit parts on TV shows and, with a partner, tried his luck as a stand-up comedian, playing small clubs. He remembers one night in Pasadena "when the only people in the audience were my dad and a janitor waiting to clean up. My dad was very supportive."
It was not until 1970, when his father died at 69 of a heart attack, that Begley's career began to take off. After small parts in such television shows as Room 222, Counselor at Law and My Three Sons, he landed a steady role on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. From there it was a series of small appearances in small movies (Cat People, Stay Hungry) and then St. Elsewhere, now in its second year. Last year he was nominated for an Emmy but lost out to James Coco, who had done a guest shot on the show. That near miss does not diminish Begley's reputation as a solid performer. Says Quincy's Jack Klugman, who has acted with both father and son: "Ed Sr. was all out there—what you saw was what you got. Ed Jr. comes on a little slower, a little more subtle. It's a quality I like."
Married since 1976, Ed Jr., his wife, Ingrid, and their children, Amanda, 6 (named after his father's first wife), and Nicholas, 5, live in a two-bedroom house in a plain-Jane section of Hollywood, where Begley raises corn, tomatoes and pumpkins in his backyard. "We spend lots of time with our kids," he says. "They know that this is their real mother and this is their real father." He seems more than content with his life. Of his early acting struggles, he says earnestly, "Thank God I didn't have any success then—I was dreadful. I didn't have a clue as to what it was all about." He wouldn't exactly spurn an offer to be a leading man, but he doesn't expect any. "I just don't think of myself as a Cary Grant or a Robert Redford or a Paul Newman," he says. "And I'm not."
Instead, with St. Elsewhere firmly under his belt and a featured role in an upcoming movie, Streets of Fire, Begley at last seems to have realized his dream to be a character actor, like his father. "I think there's a big thing with fathers and sons," he says, "where the son kind of holds back because the father is the head rooster, the head honcho, the patriarch. I was doing the acting and taking whatever came along, but not wanting to intrude on his space. Now I'm okay. I am free to become whatever I can become."