Hollywood Couple in Recovery: Ed Begley Jr. and Rachelle Carson-Begley

By John Lavitt 02/08/17

We interview Ed and Rachelle about 12-step programs, climate change deniers, and riding your bike to the Oscars.

Ed Begley Jr and Rachelle Carson-Begley
Ed and Rachelle have recorded their lives in "Living With Ed" and the new "Begleyesque."

Together in recovery for over a quarter of a century, Ed Begley Jr. and Rachelle Carson-Begley have proven that sober actors can join together in a successful marriage. Known for his six Emmy nominations for the network drama St. Elsewhere, Ed has since become the actor you recognize as the most reliable player in countless movies and television shows. Ed and Rachelle have recorded their lives in several web series and reality podcasts, from Living With Ed to the new Begleyesque.

Begleyesque is a living green podcast of the two actors and activists in conversation with environmental experts. Ed Begley Jr. also promotes ways to live a greener lifestyle through the educational television series, Innovations. Given their dedication to being of service, The Fix is happy they found the time to sit down for an interview.

The Fix: You are both actors and you are both in recovery. In what context did you originally meet?

Rachelle Carson-Begley: We actually met at a 12-step meeting. That’s what initially brought us together. We met in recovery. I can’t imagine what he would have been like outside of recovery. The thought of who we were outside of recovery frightens both of us. Luckily, we met in recovery and that was almost 30 years ago. But we didn’t get together right away. We got together later.

Ed Begley Jr.: It was something like 26 years ago.

RCB: Yes, and that’s because we reconnected at an environmental event. Independently, we had both volunteered for the event, and that’s how we came together in 1993.

EBJ: November 7th.

RCB: Yes, it was November 7th to be exact.

Ed, you have been living a green life for close to half a century now. You told Oprah, "It was the first Earth Day, and that was a big moment for me. I'd lived 20 years in smoggy LA. After 20 years of that horrible smog, I wanted to do something to make a difference." Did your green awakening coincide with your recovery? Is being green a true expression of your spirituality?

EBJ: I actually began as an environmentalist when I was deep in my addiction. In 1970, when I first started, I hadn’t really gone off to the races when it came to my drinking. Although I drank back then, it wasn’t a quart of vodka a day, and it hadn’t really manifested itself yet. I was this green guy, this strange sort of vegetarian alcoholic that would wake up and go to a restaurant where I would have organic this and natural that, and, oh, by the way, bring me a couple of Bloody Marys as well, at 7:30 in the morning. I was this walking dichotomy and contradiction, a healthy alcoholic—or so I thought.

I continued to do all the green stuff at the height or the depth of it, but to be quite clear, I only began to get a lot of environmental goals accomplished when I was sober in 1979. I joined the board of different environmental organizations, I really upped my game by putting solar on my house and buying a wind turbine. My work as an actor also greatly improved when I got sober.

Talking about Ed’s environmental passion, Rachelle told Oprah, “When I met him, let me just say this—he was more extreme. He really wouldn't get in a car. He wouldn't get on a plane. He wouldn't throw anything away. I mean, furniture from high school." Ed, is this passion both an extension of your sobriety, while at the same time being an expression of the compulsive nature of the alcoholic mind?

EBJ: Yes, it is both those things. As Rachelle suggested, I was very, very strict about certain things. I wouldn’t buy gas at the pump, and I would rarely fly. I would have my share of fuel when I would fly or when I would take a bus or an Amtrak train. Still, I wouldn’t fill up at the pump and I was kind of nutty about that. I don’t think I put in seven gallons of gas into a car during the whole decade of the nineties. I only did that because sometimes I would run out of alternative fuel when I’d be driving cross-country, and I couldn’t find natural gas to fill up my alternative fuel vehicle. Since it was a flex-fuel car, I either had to rent a big diesel fuel truck to tow me to the next station or use a little gas from the pump. Fortunately, I have loosened up a bit.

RCB: I’ve always thought that compulsion and OCD, being a compulsive person is required if you’re really going to make headway in certain areas. It’s certainly that way for Ed, but there are good compulsions and there are bad compulsions. What we try to find is balance. When you take away drugs and alcohol, there is a vacuum. What are you going to fill that space and time with? Hopefully, you’ll have a bridge back to life and have a big life, but you have to work with the gifts that you’ve been given. In this case, compulsive behavior can be seen as a gift.

In an article in The Huffington Post, Rachelle writes, “When I moved to Los Angeles … I envisioned a big, shiny life, complete with all the trappings of fame. Little did I know my life would soon more closely resemble Green Acres.” You also told Oprah, "My husband's a star, but he's decided we won't live in Beverly Hills … Instead, we have our charming little house here in Studio City, complete with a white picket fence made entirely of recycled milk jugs." As a self-described princess, did you and do you still ever dream of the beach house in Malibu or the fancy-dancy mansion in Bel Air?

RCB: That’s so funny. Of course I do.

EBJ: But you have it now. We have a beautiful green home that we designed, and neither of us have ever lived in a place like this before. It is so much more than just a mansion.

RCB: Yes, that’s true. You have to realize that I grew up with a single mom in a small apartment. The electricity was being turned off. Growing up, I lived in various extremes, so I became subject to the grandiosity of the alcoholic. I was going to have that mansion in Bel Air and Malibu or I was going to have nothing. Today, our dream home in Studio City, as a truly green home, offers the best of both worlds. It is beautiful but also has the green components that mean so much to both of us. That’s a true example of a gift of being sober.

In The Huffington Post article, Rachelle also writes about the importance of not consuming new things: “Besides being chic and environmentally correct, it’s fun to obtain … things that already exist.” Do you see modern consumerism as a kind of addiction?

EBJ: I’ll go first, and I’m sure Rachelle will have a lot to say as well. I certainly see modern consumerism as a kind of addiction. I rarely shop. Once a year, I’ll buy underwear and socks at Costco. I never buy shirts, so Rachelle buys them for me for my birthday or Christmas. Maybe I’ll pick up a pair of slacks at the Gap, but that’s about it. I also used to buy those at Costco, but I’ve moved slightly up the shopping ladder to the Gap.

RCB: Yeah, his shopping—or lack of it—is pretty ridiculous.

EBJ: As for suits, I get them after I do a movie or a TV show. They used to just give you the clothes, but now they’ll sell them to you at half price. Since the suits have already been fit to me, I don’t have to bother with alterations. I’m not much of a consumer. I feel like I have all the things that I’ll need for the rest of my days. There’s not much I need beyond groceries.

RCB: So I can stop buying you clothes for your birthday or for Christmas? I can stop buying you shirts?

EBJ: Yes, I think I already have plenty.

RCB: No, that’s never going to work. As opposed to Ed, I am a complete consumer, a true product of a post-consumer capitalist society. Sober from drugs and alcohol, not replacing them with food—that’s where I go. My Achilles’ Heel is consumerism.

When we were building this house, however, we ran out of money. (Laughing) Out of necessity, I had to start furnishing it through second-hand opportunities. There simply wasn’t any more money for buying new things, but that actually made me feel quite good. It became like a treasure hunt in thrift stores and the like to discover a real find. It’s fun, but it also became borderline compulsive.

EBJ: I’d take it a step further. I don’t buy things new or used, for the most part. If things made you happy, there’d be nothing but happy people in Bel Air and unhappy people living in the bush. I really don’t think that’s the case. Still, I’m not living on the side of the hill and spinning a prayer wheel, waiting for someone to show up and feed me. I need to work so I can buy the basic things that are needed to live a modern life, but I try to keep a real lid on it.

On the Rubin Report Sit Down, Ed said, “Climate change deniers are like alcoholics.” Can you further explain this comparison?

EBJ: They haven’t bottomed out yet and they’re still in denial. For an alcoholic, it’s always about somebody else. If that wife weren’t such a bitch, I wouldn’t have this problem. If that cop hadn’t been such a ball-buster, I wouldn’t have been arrested. If that boss wasn’t such an asshole, I wouldn’t have gotten fired. That’s not what’s going on at all. In truth, you are a practicing alcoholic and your problem is alcohol.

In regards to climate change, our addiction is oil. We are addicted to oil. There are people that are in denial about that fact, and that’s where the comparison came from on that show. Climate change deniers are like addicts who don’t want to admit the truth, so they say things like: “Those claims are false and those scientists are wrong. The 95% of scientists that say that climate change is happening are wrong. The 5% are the only ones that are right.” It’s an ugly form of denial that affects the whole world negatively.

In Los Angeles, fame is a blessing and a curse, particularly for the children of famous couples. Does having sober parents help your daughter face the challenges of living in this city? Do the principles of the program help you to help her?

RCB: (Laughing) Well, yes.

EBJ: The program has been very helpful in every part of my life, not the least of which is raising our daughter together. Rachelle and I have a beautiful daughter who’s 17, but my grown kids as well. I got sober when they were quite young. My grown daughter is nearly 40, and I got sober when she was one. I am very lucky to have had a sober life for all of the conscious moments of my children. It definitely makes me a better parent. I certainly have more time for them when I’m not out drinking with buddies in a bar.

RCB: Parenting is really difficult across the board, so I can only imagine how hard it would be if I wasn’t sober. It means so much to have a supportive community that helps you be a better person. Our daughter unfortunately got the genetic jackpot with the two of us, but the program has helped us tremendously in our home. Although it can take time, one thing we really do have in our home is honest communication. Sometimes it takes a while, but ultimately the truth is the truth, and we are not afraid of it.

EBJ: Can you imagine parenting drunk? I can’t even imagine it.

RCB: (Laughing) Sometimes I wish that I could try it, but no, that’s a joke. (Both laughing) We are very lucky to have each other.

Ed spoofed his environmentalist beliefs on "Homer to the Max,” an episode of The Simpsons where you used a nonpolluting go-kart powered by your "own sense of self-satisfaction.” Is this an example of using humor to raise awareness for the green cause?

EBJ: Yes, that was a funny line in a funny episode, and I was happy that they came to me first. They certainly could have gotten someone else to do my voice. When they sent over the script, I laughed when I read that line. You need to have a sense of humor about yourself, and I hope I do. I was happy to do that episode, and I think it turned out to be helpful in many ways. Even when you’re trying to save the world, you need to have a sense of humor or you’ll go crazy.

RCB: If we didn’t laugh at ourselves, one of us would end up in an orange jumpsuit. Two compulsive and addictive people living together without humor is a recipe for disaster. There are many funny things about being a human being in general, and also about being environmentalists in particular. There’s great material there, and that’s what made our reality shows pretty funny in a surprising way. 

According to a feature on the Bio Channel television program Celebrity Close Calls, Ed nearly died in 1972 after being stabbed multiple times while being mugged by a street gang. The trauma of that event must have been extreme. How did that trauma affect you?

EBJ: Of course, it was horrible, but you can’t carry that kind of anger around with you. I quickly dispatched that anger, but the tools I used were the tools that I knew at the time; drugs and alcohol. After that stabbing on February 17th, I had a collapsed lung, and I was in the hospital for some time. It was pretty bad. A year later in 1972, on the same day, a guy ran a red light and fractured my femur. I was in traction and in a spica cast. They also set my leg crooked.

Later, I found a cut-up body in my trash. I had all these misfortunes that occurred, and I drowned that pain through drugs and alcohol. Of course, it meant I had a larger bill due and payable further down the line, because now the problems of addiction and alcoholism were added. Although you could say that’s the way I dealt with it, in truth, I really didn’t deal with it at all. When you are immersed in drugs and alcohol, you don’t feel a lot of the lows, but you certainly don’t feel a lot of the highs either. You are in this very unhealthy zone where you are not learning anything. You stop growing emotionally and spiritually when you start your drug and alcohol abuse. I really think that’s true. When I got sober, I was 30 years old, but I was really only 19 from that perspective. I was a man much younger than my years, emotionally.

Although I had a lot of bad luck during that period of the early seventies, I also think a lot of the decisions that I made to be at the intersection and to be driving that car at that time were due to being under the haze of drugs and alcohol. I don’t think those things would have happened if I hadn’t been drunk and stoned.

In 2015 and 2016, you both attended the Academy Awards as guests. While Rachelle carpooled one year and then drove herself the next, Ed rode his bike to what is perhaps the most prestigious and security-heavy event in the country outside of Washington. Can you tell us more about this choice?

EBJ: What I did both years was what I thought made a lot of sense. I rode in biking clothes to get over the hill via the Cahuenga Pass. I then went to BiteSize Entertainment at Hollywood and Vine because they were friends, and they let me use their bathroom. I cleaned up and changed into my tuxedo there, which I had in a pannier that fit on the back of the bike. I biked the 10 very short blocks down Hollywood Boulevard to the Dolby Theater. You can do that on a bike without breaking a sweat. It worked very well this year. Not quite as well the year before.

RCB: I tried to talk him out of it both years. It was actually fine this past year, but the year before, it rained. If you can picture this without laughing, he was soaking wet at the Academy Awards.

EBJ: Yes, in 2015, it was raining. I actually got to the BiteSize offices fine because it was only a mild drizzle. I even got to the theater without a problem in my tuxedo, but then, at that moment, I realized I left my cell phone back at Hollywood and Vine. I needed my cell phone in order to meet up with Rachelle when I got there. I had to go back and get it. That was fine at first, but the ride back to the theater ended up being in the middle of a downpour. (Laughing) I arrived looking like a drenched black lab, soaked to the skin, and I had to go into the bathroom and dry off as best I could.

RCB: It was so much fun, yet he insisted on doing it again.

EBJ: The next time it worked just as planned.

RCB: Yes, that is true, but you could have carpooled with me. That would have worked as well.

Any closing words about the gift of recovery?

EBJ: It’s been the best thing that happened to me and it has led to all the other great things in my life. If I hadn’t have been sober, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish the things I have done in the green world, I wouldn’t have been on the show St. Elsewhere and nominated for an Emmy six times, I wouldn’t have been the father that I have been. It has led to the greatest gifts in my life: Rachelle and Hayden and my grown children, Nick and Amanda.

RCB: Without being sober, I would never have met Ed. I never planned on getting married or having a child. I was going to be 100 percent career driven. In sobriety, so many dreams have come true. What’s ironic is I did not know they were my dreams until they happened, and I have experienced such a sense of meaning and happiness through them.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.