Q&A: Ed Begley Jr., on Al Gore and the power of reality TV

As an actor, Ed Begley Jr. has had a few notable gigs on "St. Elsewhere," "Boston Legal" and in "A Mighty Wind." But he's most proud of his real-life role as an environmentalist. For the most part, his personal and professional acting worlds existed on separate tracks, occasionally colliding at events like the posh Vanity Fair Academy Awards party where he stepped off his bicycle and onto the red carpet.

But now, Begley, 58, is not only an environmentalist; he also plays one on HGTV's reality series, "Living With Ed." Hitting its stride in its second season, the endearing show tracks Begley as he and his wife, Rachelle Carson, "green-audit" the homes of their celebrity friends. Among them: Jay Leno, Helen Hunt and Cheryl Tiegs. NEWSWEEK's Jamie Reno recently phoned Begley (who happened to be in Las Vegas and seemed a bit unnerved by his gaudy, eco-ignorant surroundings). Begley discussed his show, Hollywood's environmental hypocrisy and Al Gore's Nobel prize. <> Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: First of all, what are you doing in Vegas? I'm guessing this isn't your favorite place.
Ed Begley Jr.: You're right, it isn't. It's a garish, awful place. So much energy and water wasted. It's a nightmare. But I drove over here in my hybrid to attend a bicycle convention and talk about Izip electrical bikes. They're great, especially for baby boomers that need a little help. As you pedal, it generates electrical power and can go for 50 miles at up to 25mph. Plus it only costs about 30 cents a day to recharge.

The second season of "Living With Ed" is quite different than the first. You and your wife are getting out of the house more this year, and there are a bunch of celebrities on the show. Was this your idea?
I have a lot of friends, and many of them have agreed to appear this season, from Jackson Browne, whose house is entirely off the [electrical] grid, to Cheryl Tiegs, who wants to do more to conserve energy. I go to their homes to give them an energy audit and tell them how they can conserve more energy. But I'm learning, too. When I went to my friend Phil Rosenthal's house [the creator of "Everybody Loves Raymond"], I found that he had solar panels integrated right into the shingles on his roof. My solar panels at home look like giant sculptures, but you can't even see Phil's unless you get a ladder, which I did.

You're obviously passionate about the environment , but your message has never been angry or hostile. Are you a kinder, gentler environmental activist?
Yes, I find that for me this is the best way to further my cause. I have a lot of dear Republican friends, from Dabney Coleman to [former Los Angeles mayor] Richard Riordan to Bill Clark ["NYPD Blue" producer], and I think they are much more open to my environmental message because I don't shout it, I just live it.

But Hollywood still has its share of green hypocrites, doesn't it?
Oh, yes, of course. I admit there have been times over the years when I've gotten frustrated. I was at a rain-forest benefit back in 1990 at the Twentieth Century Fox studios, and right there on the soundstage was lauan plywood, which must have been ripped out of the rain forest. Another time I was attending an event commemorating Earth Day, and all the people were showing up in limos. It was counterproductive, and I was frustrated. But I'm not strident about these things.

I've noticed a lot more hybrid limos at Hollywood functions lately, including a bunch at this year's Academy Awards. Should we thank you for that?
A lot of people in the industry are responsible for the fact that this was the first green Oscars, and it was great to see. I'm a longtime board member [and former chairman] of the Environmental Media Association, and we act as a liaison between the entertainment and environmental communities. We've done a lot, but there is still much more to do.

So what's the latest and most practical environmental trend that you're espousing?
My favorite right now is something called GreenSwitch. It's a switch that, when you leave the house, turns off everything that is nonessential--from your cell-phone charger to your printer. It takes away all the vampire power, which sucks up energy but doesn't give you any benefit. You can't walk around unplugging everything every time you leave the house. The switch is wireless and can be hooked up only to the outlets you choose, and depending on the size of your home, can save you between 10 and 12 kilowatt hours a day.

How do you feel about Al Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize last week?
I am ecstatic, I am over-the-moon happy for Al. He's a good friend, I've known him since the 1980s and have admired him since the 1970s during the hearings on the toxic Love Canal. He's talked about the environment and global climate change and things that matter for a long, long time, and I am just ecstatic that he's won this award.

So are you going to "green-audit" Gore's house as you have for so many others?
I know, I know … his power bills. The thing is, it isn't just Al and Tipper in that house. He has a large staff in that house. He has put in some carbon offsets. But should he use less power? Yes. Should I use less power? Yes. We all should use less power, we should all should try to fly less and do whatever we can to scale down. But the message Al is spreading is so important. I have nothing negative to say about him.

Speaking of Gore, I hear that you have signed on to appear in the HBO film "Recount" about the controversial Florida election recount in 2000.
Yes, we actually start filming next week. I play David Boies, Al Gore's attorney. I'm really excited about the project.

Do you think Gore should enter the 2008 presidential race?
I think he should do whatever he feels is best for him. I'm really not sure he wants to enter that firestorm again, though. He'll make that decision on his own, of course, but perhaps he thinks now that he can do more good outside the White House.