On October 22, 2015, my casting directors Bernie Telsey and Tiffany Little Canfield sent me a link to a batch of audition tapes from NYC. The auditions were for various roles in a new television pilot that I was beginning to cast, a pilot that would eventually become the series “This Is Us.”
This was my entire reply to them:
And in an immediate one sentence follow-up email, I added:
it’s like he walked out of my brain, honestly.
That was the start of my wonderful run with Ron Cephas Jones, who left us far too soon this past week.
For six years I had the privilege of writing for Ron on “This Is Us.” On the show, Ron played a complicated man named William Hill: a musician, a poet, an addict, and perhaps most importantly, the biological father to Sterling K. Brown’s Randall Pearson.
When “This Is Us” first launched in the fall of 2016, I don’t know that any of us were entirely ready for the immediate success it would find. One minute we were just a bunch of well-intentioned people, making a nice family drama for network television. The next minute NBC was selling “This Is Us” tissue boxes and the cast couldn’t walk down the street without someone hugging them and bursting into tears.
And in the epicenter of all that love for our show, there was Ron.
For that brief window of time, when the show took hold in the center of the zeitgeist, no one wanted to talk to me about anything except “This Is Us.” Complete strangers would offer up to me their favorite storylines, their favorite moments, their favorite characters. But there was never anything more often repeated to me than this:
“Oh, and that grandfather on the show. He’s just wonderful. What an actor.”
What an actor indeed.
Ron wasn’t just an actor… he was an actor’s actor. He was most at home on a stage: the real ones, all over New York City or wherever the work took him, as well as the more spacious soundstages where he worked consistently in TV and film – even if he didn’t become a nationally recognized face until this later stage of his career. I have never worked with another actor – not one – who seemed more content to be sitting off to the side of a stage in his chair looking over his script pages, or chatting with another actor (usually Sterling or Susan in our case).
Being an actor wasn’t just a thing Ron loved. It was what he was. It was who he was.
What many people didn’t know as they were watching Ron tear the cover off the ball in those first few seasons, was how ill he was.
At the start of “This Is Us,” Ron was a few years away from a much needed double lung transplant. Movement was laborious. The simple act of breathing was not always easy for him. Often it was brutally hard. But Ron NEVER complained. Not once. In a cast of wonderful, grateful people – there was no happier person on our set than Ron. There was no call time too early, no lunch order received too late. And actor that he was, I believe Ron actually used his illness to help inform his performance as a terminally ill man. When his character wasn’t actively sick, Ron would find ways to save his breath and speak his lines effortlessly. But when his character was in the throes of end-stage cancer, I noticed that he let his own breathing issues play on screen… perhaps most memorably in the “Memphis” episode of “This Is Us” where his character passes away while being told by his son, literally, to “Breathe. Just breathe.”
It was devastating losing Ron’s character in that first season of that show. It happened in Episode 16 of our 18-episode first season. It was always planned that William would pass away in the show, toward the end of the first season. It was important for the show’s future storylines, and it was important for the arcs of other characters – particularly Sterling’s. It was all part of a very big plan.
But what we didn’t plan for was for Ron to be so goddamn good.
Rarely did a day go by that someone in my inner circle wouldn’t come to me and ask the big question, the question that I was already asking myself: “Are you sure about this? Maybe we should let him beat this thing? Find a miracle drug, or an amazing doctor, or a magic rock that cures cancer, or something?” Because while Ron could and would be in flashbacks moving forward, we were talking about removing him from the epicenter of the show. As a writer it was like being given a superpower, and then giving it back willingly in just Episode 16. “Nah, I’m good, I don’t need super strength. It’s the right decision for the show.”
It was brutal.
Ron never balked. He never expressed anything but gratitude and thanks – both when his character left the show, or anytime he would return to play with us in the years to follow. I never spoke directly about this with Ron, but losing his character so early always made me feel a bit guilty; the idea that this beautiful man would be so fully at the center of our our early success, but never get to share in the on-going success like the rest of us – not just financially, but also in the daily joy and camaraderie that we’d all found together on this unexpected miracle of a show.
But Ron continued to assuage any internal concern or guilt I had. Every time I’d see him, he’d beam talking about new acting opportunities that were coming his way. He’d share how overwhelmed he was to have won two Emmys for his work on the show – at his age, after such a workmanlike career. His health took a huge swing for the better, and he was grateful for that.
Perhaps because for so long he labored for every single breath, he was grateful for each next one he got. Literally and figuratively.
And at the center of all his gratitude, all his pride, was his daughter Jasmine. No matter how much breath Ron Cephas Jones had in him, he saved some to talk about her. The only thing he loved more than acting.
Ron’s final big moment on the show was in our penultimate episode, as he played escort to Mandy Moore’s Rebecca on her magical train ride to the afterlife. In the final moments of the episode Rebecca remarks:
“It’s quite sad isn’t it? The end.”
Ron’s reply, and one of the final things I’d ever get to write for him:
“Oh I don’t know, the way I see it, if something makes you sad when it ends, it must have been pretty wonderful when it was happening.”
He was as wonderful as they come.
Breathe easy, my friend. I look forward to writing for you again on the other side. I promise you won’t even have to audition this time.