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10 Quick Questions for Ed Begley Jr.

Veteran actor pens new memoir, ‘To the Temple of Tranquility … and Step On It!’

spinner image Ed Begley Jr. with hands under chin against green ombre background
Photo Collage: MOA Staff; (Source: Russell Baer)

In his new memoir, To the Temple of Tranquility … and Step On It! actor Ed Begley Jr., 74, shares his celebrity-fueled life adventures, including stories about the Beatles, Richard Pryor, Cesar Chavez, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carrie Fisher, among others. The longtime environmentalist, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2016, tells AARP how exercise is helping him manage the disease, and shares stories of his carpentry days, his love of stargazing and his passion for puzzles. 

How did you decide to write a memoir?

It started innocently enough. I wasn’t at all writing a book when I started. It was my daughter, Hayden [age 23], getting her iPhone and saying, “Tell me some of those stories about your father and your mother and, you know, that stuff just for my kids and grandkids.” I started telling these stories, and pretty soon ... I told the story of smoking a joint with Charles Manson and Robert Blake and all this other stuff … and she was fascinated. I started taking notes just in case I was going to do something else with it, and a publisher heard about it, contacted me and here we are.

With all of that recent life reflection, do you have any regrets?

spinner image ed begley junior on book cover of to the temple of tranquility and step on it
In his new book, Begley Jr. writes about his relationship with his legendary father and his adventures with celebrities, as well as his personal struggles with addiction.
Hachette Books

I have some things that would have gone a lot better for me had I done them differently, but they’re all essential to me being in this chair right now talking to you. It’s that butterfly effect of sorts with your life — little butterflies that make you go in this door instead of that door, and then you don’t get St. Elsewhere. More accurately, I did get St. Elsewhere, but I didn’t get the part I wanted. I wanted the part of a regular, and some other guy got that, and they threw me a bone — gave me a character with a couple of lines, but look how that turned out? I’m paddling hard to the port side on the canoe of life, down the river of life, and it’s pulling me to the starboard side and I go, “OK, I’m gonna quit fighting this current. Where’s this taking me?” And it takes me to a beautiful land, as it turns out.

If you could do it all again, is there anything you’d do differently?

I’d be a lot nicer to my first wife. And more specifically, I’d be honest about everything. I became a very honest person when I got sober in 1979, with one minor addendum: I was allowed to be dishonest to, oh, about half the population of the planet — women — about things that were very important or secret or special to me. Literally, my ignorance — I thought if I get married, I’ll become faithful. If I put the ring on the finger, that act will make me monogamous. And it takes more than that as it turns out, which I learned in my second marriage very well. I’m a much better husband now. I’ve been very good in that department, and many others, because pain is a great teacher.

Was there a time when you thought, I’m not going to make it as an actor?

Absolutely. I was doing OK as a young actor, but it wasn’t going at the rate I had hoped when I started in the late ’60s. So I worked as a cameraman — an assistant cameraman is what I was precisely. I thought, Well, this is my lot in life, and I’m quite happy with it. But then I got a call to be on the show Room 222. I did that, and they liked me and had me back for another episode, and another and another. That was a big breakthrough. Then I started to work to the point I was successful enough to get married and have kids and buy a house. And the minute after escrow closed, the work slowed to about half of what it was before. I was panicked, just panicked. I did another career change of sorts, a segue into — I was still an actor and worked a bit — but I worked as a carpenter and a handyman. I built a big built-in desk and bookshelf for Carl Gottlieb, who wrote the screenplay for Jaws; I built a shed for [actor] David L. Lander and his wife, Kathy Lander. I built a fence for [actor] Michael McKean. All my friends who had real careers at the time were very generous with me. Helena Kallianiotes, wonderful actress who was in Five Easy Pieces — she hired me to build her a table.

You have so many celebrity friends. Who would we be surprised to know is a contact in your phone?

The most interesting new entry into my phone book is certainly Taylor Swift. I played her father in a movie called Amsterdam, and so I got to know her. … Wonderful lady. She’s a great songwriter in my opinion.

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Are you still building things? 

I am handy, but my hands betray me a great deal because of the Parkinson’s. I don’t shake much, but I don’t have the hand strength where you could hold two boards together with your left hand and get the screw gun with the right. I could do those chores, but it involves more clamps and vises and external help because my hands betray me a bit. I still love doing it — whatever I still can do.

How are you feeling overall?

I’m actually doing very good, even with the Parkinson’s factored in. [I’m still] riding my bike every day, going to the gym every day, doing a certain level of handiwork around the house and doing my vegetable garden. I haven’t let it slow me down.

What do you do at the gym?

I do a Lifecycle [bike] there. If it’s a smoggy day or rainy day, I do 30 minutes until I work up to level 12 on the recumbent bike. Then I do all the upper-body machines that they have. All those kinds of curls and lats and all the different biceps, triceps. It’s maybe an hour workout, but I do it every day and it really keeps me — from Parkinson’s — you run faster every year to stay in place. Also a lot of stretching. I hang from a chin-up bar quite often. I have one of those at the perfect height where I can grab it, and then I’m suspended and hanging by my arms. Everything opens up, which is important with Parkinson’s, because it keeps wanting to pull you down and in. Yeah, you gotta open up — move your head and your neck back. I do that as much as I can. That’s very important to me.

What’s your favorite way to relax?

I have a nice telescope. I've got a Celestron telescope, 11-inch scope, and so that’s very nice to get it set up and look at the moon or the different celestial bodies — the Orion Nebula, what have you. Very pretty. Saturn, you can see the ring so clearly with a scope like that. I have my vegetable garden. I love to grow food in the backyard. But my big passion, I must add, is puzzles. I do the L.A. [Times] and New York Times [crossword puzzle] every day. I do Wordle. I do Connections. I do the Jumble.

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Acting-wise, is there something you still want to do?

I like the process of just working. I’m in the fortunate position, I don’t have to go and pursue much work. People call me up and say, “Is Ed available on November 12th?” And I say yes or no after I read the script. And it’s usually yes. The kind of people that give me a call these days are people from wonderful shows that I’ve been on recently. I’m just, I’m blessed to still work at 74. I won the lottery. I don’t remember even buying the ticket.

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