That carefree blond mop atop a paste-white, square face graced by dual ellipses of tortoise shell; that rigid frame; those nimble hands; these mark the presence of Ed Begley, Jr., one of the more reliable supporting actors in Hollywood. He etched himself onto our minds during his five years with the award-winning hospital soap "St. Elsewhere," garnering two Emmy nominations for his work. So why hasn't he found the right vehicle to build a memorable persona in features?
Well, in a sense, he has. Ed works in mysterious ways. Begley, in his assorted supporting roles in motion pictures, has located a new poetry in death. Over the years he's tallied up an unusual number of bizarre screen demises, usually at the end of a film's first act. We see strung through his body (pun intended) of work a sort of journey--a single, ongoing film-in-progress composed of Ed Begley, Jr.'s many parts. Each stop along the way seems to mark an exorcism of the worst in us.
When he played a sex-starved hippie in Paul Bartel's cannibal comedy Eating Raoul, Mary Woronov bashed his brains in with a frying pan, then later sold his body to a meat-packing plant. In a larger sense, was Ed the actor offering his libido for symbolic sacrifice, as food for the masses? The "Tall Blond Geek with Glasses," as he was so aptly named in the credits of the mock-rockumentary This is Spinal Tap, met with "a bizarre gardening accident." Was Ed weeding out his pathetic, antisocial side? Quite possibly. Though his television work would seem to foretell an eternity typecast in nerd roles, after Spinal Tap, he never geeked again. This summer, crazed Wayne Electronics employee Jim Carrey wheeled the oppressively bureaucratic part of Ed through a window in Batman Forever.
Granted, Ed's characters did manage to live all the way through Streets of Fire, She-Devil, and Meet the Applegates, but who cares? Those were bombs! If we go through his resume title by title, the equation that emerges is as follows: if Ed Begley, Jr. is in your picture and you want it to succeed at the box office, you'd best ensure that he dies quickly.
Writer-director Paul Schrader, no stranger to metaphysical imagery himself, understands this. Early in the actor's career, Schrader cast Ed as the first onscreen victim of a hungry black panther--the feline form of costar Malcolm McDowell--in his 1982 horror remake Cat People. While viewing it again recently, when the panther tore Ed's arm off and crimson spouted from the stump, I couldn't help but see poetry in the moment: by my calculations, he has about five lives left.