Keeping Cesar Alive
Actor Ed Begley Jr. explains how he was inspired to write a play honoring his friend, Cesar Chavez
If all you know of Ed Begley Jr. is his work on television or film say, his smoothly professional hotel manager in Best in Show, his sexually liberated hairdresser on Six Feet Under, his Emmy-nominated turn as Dr. Victor Ehrlich on St. Elsewhere, or any of his other 200-plus performances then you might find the tall blond actor with the comic flair an unlikely torchbearer for the memory of Latino human rights activist Cesar Chavez. But Begley has a deep sense of social justice, and Chavez's fight for the welfare of migrant workers struck a chord in him as a young man. He developed an interest in Chavez's causes and eventually met and struck up a friendship with the man himself, which led to Begley's serving as a pallbearer at Chavez's funeral. Out of concern that his friend's contributions to society not be lost, he did something he had never done before: He wrote a musical and produced it. In 2003, the 10th year following Chavez's passing, the musical Cesar and Ruben was mounted in Los Angeles to considerable popular success and critical acclaim. As St. Edward's University prepares to open the second production ever of Begley's play, the actor, author, and director discusses his admiration for Cesar Chavez, how the play came to be, and how it came to Austin.
Austin Chronicle: When did this become a story you had to tell?
Ed Begley Jr: It kind of snuck up on me. By that I mean he died in 1993, and everyone was very upset. It was very shocking for him, a relatively young man, to die like that. He had fasted a lot and had risked his health with these long fasts, of course, but we never thought we would lose him this early in the game, really. About a year went by and I found myself driving down Highway 99 through Bakersfield and Delano and McFarland and all these towns that he made famous in the labor movement and listening to a song on the radio and going, "Oh, wow, if someone ever did a show about Cesar, that'd be a good song, that Peter Gabriel song 'Don't Give Up,' for the early part of his life, to tell the story of when [Cesar's parents] Librado and Juana lose the farm." They had a nice farm and got cheated, I think, by a lawyer, so they lost the whole homestead and were forced to work as migrant workers on the same road as the Okies coming to California were. So I'm thinking that would be a good song. Then I was listening to another song, and that would be a great song to tell this part of the story. And pretty soon, without knowing it, I had written most of the first act of a play. I just started writing these songs down. It was kind of a funny exercise, or I don't know what. And I started writing a play.
Slowly, at first. The truth is, it took me nine years to write it. Because it's reverse engineering. You know, I don't write songs, so I'm taking existing songs. And that's why I kept abandoning it, going, "How am I going to get the rights to these songs, to sing them on stage? How is that going to happen? Would anybody go for that?" It'd be very complicated to do things this way.
AC: One of the reasons I heard that it took you so long was because you had headed down the wrong road, with Cesar telling his own story. What gave you the idea to bring in Ruben Salazar, and why particularly Ruben Salazar?
EB: When I was reading the play before, I'd look and go, "This play is like a zillion plays I've seen. What's different and interesting about this play?" [Speaking in the voice of the play] "Then I met Dolores Huerta in 1952. Fred Ross has introduced us, and yakety shmakety." I went, "Why am I doing this?" It's nice to celebrate his life, but there's nothing about this play that really grabs me. Then I thought, you know what might be good? If he needed to visit the more salient points of his life, he needed to relive his life's experience for some reason. And if there was someone there to guide him through that, who would that be? I started thinking of all these different people it could be. It should be like maybe someone who was interviewing him. Oh my gosh, that reporter for the L.A. Times, Ruben Salazar, who died before him, maybe he is stuck in limbo for some reason, and he is there to help Cesar, but then Cesar, as was always the case with him, he was there to help someone else. People would say, "I'm gonna help you," and Cesar wound up helping them. So that's one of the basic tenets of the play: Ruben Salazar is there to help Cesar, but Cesar winds up helping Ruben deal with, and in fact recall, what happened to him.
AC: Did you feel like you turned a corner when you came up with that idea?
EB: Yeah, it suddenly became more interesting, kind of a little offbeat to have two guys talking in an alternative dimension about things that occurred during their lives. Then they could go back and experience parts of their lives again, be part of the living world and come back out and eventually move on. This was something that I was writing long before I was ever on Six Feet Under, and the popularity of that notion has been proven on television and long before that. There are lots of interesting ways to spin that kind of thing. I liked the play suddenly, with that added thing of Ruben Salazar.
And when I started writing this, I started looking for music, going to music stores in Los Angeles that featured music in Spanish, I was shocked to find that many young Latino men and women did not know who Cesar Chavez was. "What are you doing this for?" "I'm writing a play about Cesar Chavez." "The fighter? Is he still fighting?" "No, the other Cesar Chavez, the guy with United Farm Workers, the one the boulevard is named for." "I thought that was the fighter." You know, I would expect that from a tall, blond kid from the Valley perhaps, but I didn't expect to find that [with Latinos]. So I went, "I really need to do this play. It might be a nice thing to do as an educational tool."
AC: Why do you think Cesar's legacy has not lived on the way that someone like Martin Luther King Jr.'s has?
EB: I think it's lack of knowledge. People know very well about the people who were refused service in the South, African-American people. They don't know as well that in Cesar's life he was refused service in a diner for being a Mexican kid, that a cop told him he had to shine shoes in the other side of town, that he was caught speaking Spanish to another kid in his class and the teacher overheard him and hung a sign around his neck: "I'm a clown, I speak Spanish." These are all things that happened to him, real things that occurred, and people are just not aware of it. They know of other struggles. They're more well-known. This story is not as well-known not just Cesar's story, the many other people that it happened to.
I wish I could say the struggle is over or nearly over, but we just had several farm workers in L.A. die in the fields from the heat. They were worked and not given breaks, and they died in this heat wave. In Austin here, they had some people who were not paid, and they had to have a protest on somebody's lawn. There are inequities to this day. So I think it's an important story.
And here's the great thing about Cesar, the most important thing and another thing that I don't think people know a lot about: His fasting was not to win the grape boycott or the lettuce boycott or to win those contracts. It was to send a message that there could not be violence. It was sent to his side as much as the other side. "I'm going to fast to make sure that we do not respond to the violence. I know they killed Juan de la Cruz on the picket line. We must not retaliate with violence. We will fight back in other ways." He was a student and disciple of Dr. King and Gandhi, so the early fast was to gain attention to his cause as well, but the principal reason was to send a message of nonviolence. And a powerful tool, I say.
AC: So how did you finally finish the play?
EB: I just kept doing it, over the course of nine years, and then it got to be 2002, and it became clear then, coming up to the 10-year anniversary of his death, that there was not going to be any movie that would come out [about Chavez], so I thought, "Wow, maybe I will do this play." Brring! The phone rings. "Hi, this is Faith Holmes from the Oneness Foundation. We'd like to do your play." "Do my play? I don't have a play. That's like saying I have a Buick. I have pieces of a Buick in my garage. I got a manifold and I got a transmission. I don't have a whole unit." She said, "No no no, you didn't understand me. I just want to do a piece of your play, a 15-minute piece for Cesar Chavez Day." "Oh my god, somebody wants to do this verkakte thing that I've written." 'Cause someone had told her, "Ed has part of this play, and it's good." So I put it together and did it, and I said, "Wow, this could be something." Then I wrote it, and around Labor Day, 2002, I showed it to my friend Edward James Olmos. "Eddie, you tell me if this is anything. This could be the stupidest thing I've ever done. The arrogance of the Anglo dude from Van Nuys High writing this. Just tell me what you think." And his girlfriend and he and I read it together, and he said, "You have to do this." So I set about getting funding, and I wound up doing it in 2003, in plenty of time for the 10-year anniversary of his death.
AC: You put a lot on the line to make this happen, didn't you?
EB: Yeah. It's funny. The play was just something that wouldn't go away. I went, OK, I finished the play. I had a read-through. I had a manager at the time, and he was going to help me get the financing. And I just couldn't get it. I couldn't get the money together to do it. And then a couple of things happened. There's this Irish stone mason, he's a friend of mine. He's been doing pretty good business in the San Diego area. Just a few years before, he did some stonework for me in my back yard when he had a sum total of one employee, himself. And now he had like 13 employees, and he said [in an Irish accent], "I like this play of yours. I'd like to put some money into the play here. Let me put some money in, we'll do the damn play. You can't find the money, let's do it, you and I." And he was the first person to put money in. And I said, "Well, if you're going to do that, I'm going to try to find some money." Brring! "Hi, Ed, it's Chris Guest. Could you come see me?" "Sure, did I do something wrong?" "No, I just need to talk to you." This is before the holidays in 2002. "I just wanted to give you something. Thanks for doing a great job in Best in Show." He hands me an envelope, and in it was a check that was ... a nice-sized check. I won't be so indiscreet as to tell you the amount, but it was a nice-sized check. It was a sum of money that was a bonus for being in his movie. I was speechless 'cause we do all these Chris Guest movies for scale and quite happily. He gave me this check, and I went, "Oh my God, I can do the play now." And my managers at the time said, "We'll put up some money, too." I rented a theatre. I thought I had figured out what it would cost to do a play. I quickly got schooled. It kind of snowballed. I mortgaged my house, with great glee. 'Cause I was having so much fun, I didn't care. My wife wanted to kill me, but she had a part in the play, so she couldn't complain too much. And we did it.
And I would do it again in a minute. It was the scariest and simultaneously the best time of my life. It was wonderful, and I'll tell you the main reason. Every night half the people would come out, "Does somebody have a [Kleenex]? Is there a tissue in the bathroom?" People every night had an emotional response. Half or more of the audience had that response. So I knew we were on to something. Then I saw people come back again and again. We had something around 20% repeat business, which is kind of surprising for a play like that. [Cesar's] family came repeatedly. His wife Helen came several times. His son-in-law Arturo Rodriguez, who came here to St. Edward's, he attended this university, came repeatedly. We stayed open 91/2 weeks at a medium-sized theatre called the El Portal, 350-seat theatre.
Some people bought tickets in some cases we gave them to them at a greatly reduced rate, in some cases we gave them to them for free because they brought kids, students, to the play. They did not know the story at all. A group of gang kids was brought as part of a program with at-risk youth. When I heard from the custodians of these kids that they were crying, that was very powerful.
Then Brother Gerald got involved and said, "You should come and do it in Austin," and here we are. You heard the Brother Gerald connection, right? I went to Notre Dame High School in the San Fernando Valley in the mid-Sixties, and my teacher for the two years that I went to Notre Dame was he was called Brother Roberto then Brother Gerald Mueller. He taught band. I played the bass drum in the marching band a spinning bass drum, if you will and I was in the orchestra on the low end of the percussion team, I did cymbals and bass drum and da da da. I got to love music and love musicals, and I learned to be a drummer, so Brother Gerald has a lot to do not only with me being here but me doing this musical at all. And many years ago he moved to Austin to teach at St. Edward's. So that's the Brother Gerald connection.
I'd spent a year working on [the play after the L.A. production] and then was trying to find another place to do it, and the minute I was done: Brring! "Ed, it's Brother Roberto. You have to call up Ev Lunning. Right now! D'you hear me? You call him now! He's the guy at the Mary Moody Northen Theatre. You're gonna do it there. D'you hear me?" "Yes, Brother, whatever." Suddenly, I'm back to 1965. I called up Ev Lunning, he said, "Send me the play, we'll look at it." I sent it to him, and he got back to me, "We're going to do the play." I was so happy. I was hoping to do the play again, and here I am. I'm very happy.
AC: I would think that a university would be an ideal place to do another production of it.
EB: It is. It's ideal. It's been a great experience for me.
AC: What sort of feeling have you been getting from the students here?
EB: The students are so good. They're just fantastic, and they seem to have embraced the project. Though students, they're very professional and very engaged in the process. Most of [the story] is completely foreign to them. That's the impression I get. If I talk to some of them, they go, "No, I learned about that in history, the air traffic controllers." You know, when you think about it, that's history 1980, that's history for them, and certainly you go back to the Sixties and Seventies and all that stuff with the Teamsters and all that, that is ancient history. But it's my impression that either they in fact find it interesting or they're pretending that they find it interesting and doing a wonderful job of acting that.
Cesar and Ruben runs Sept. 28-Oct. 9, Wednesday-Sunday, 7:30pm, Sunday, 2pm, at the Mary Moody Northen Theatre, 3001 S. Congress. For more information, call 448-8484.