Winner of the Tony and an Oscar, Ed Begley Sr. was a force to be reckoned with on Radio Row in both New York and Los Angeles.
Although he will never be as popular as the Leading Man, sometimes the character actor is the best part of a movie. Leading Men are pretty much interchangeable; he is a ruggedly handsome manly man, and Hollywood has nearly as many ruggedly handsome manly men as it does beautiful girls. Character actors tend to specialize as certain types, and few actors were as able to pull off the querulous old guy whom everyone likes quite as well as Ed Begley.
Born the son of Irish immigrants in Hartford, Connecticut, 1901, Ed Begley Sr enjoyed a happy childhood. His father “could mimic any dialect and knew hundreds of songs and stories. He loved to entertain people – for the fun he got out of it.” Ed began performing at the age of nine and did his acting apprenticeship with the Hartford Globe Theatre. Although his parents encouraged his efforts and he grew up in a happy home, Ed frequently ran away, not to get away from anything but to find adventure.
One of these adventures landed Ed in the “hoosegow” for a four-day stretch, but he was always happy to return home because it was a happy and welcoming place. However, he dropped out of school in the fifth grade and began working with carnivals and traveling shows Later, he would work as a bowling alley pin boy, sold brushes, and delivered milk. He was too young to get in on the adventure of the Great War, but he did serve a four-year hitch in the Navy between the Wars.
During the Great Depression, Ed worked in vaudeville and was hired as a radio announcer while he struggled to establish himself on the legitimate stage. He would become Radio’s first Charlie Chan and played Sgt. O’Hara in The Fat Man. Broadway success came in 1943 with Land of Fame (Belasco Theatre, 6 performances) and Get Away Old Man (Cort Theatre, 13 performances).
Broadway notices led to invitations to Hollywood where Ed was cast in character roles while keeping his presence felt on Radio Row. He played Lt Walter Levinson on Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Begley also appeared on episodes of Suspense, Escape, and The Cavalcade of America. Back on Broadway, Ed starred as Matthew Harrison Brady in Inherit the Wind (1955, National Theatre, 806 performances) opposite Paul Muni as Henry Drummond. Ed won a Tony for his work, and when Muni left the production Begley moved into the Drummond role. In 1965, he reprised the Brady role for an NBC TV movie. The highlight of his film career came when he was awarded the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962, MGM).
Ed Begley was married three times and is the father of actor and activist Ed Begley Jr. On April 28, 1970, Ed Begley Sr. suffered a fatal heart attack during a party at the home of his publicist, Jay Lerner. He was 69.