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This Is Us: Gerald McRaney on Dr. K's heartbreak and lemonade

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Paul Drinkwater/NBC

Along with the arrival of the Big Three in the premiere of This Is Us came another special delivery: The introduction of Dr. K.

The old-fashioned, sharp-witted OB-GYN who stepped in for Rebecca’s ailing doctor to deliver her triplets became an instant fan favorite as he comforted a grief-shocked Jack after one of the babies did not survive birth. With homespun eloquence and a twist on the “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” adage, he planted the seeds for Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) to find something life-affirming in tragedy, guiding them toward the adoption of a third child who had been dropped off at the hospital after being abandoned at a fire station. There would be three after all; just not like they had planned.

We would see Dr. K in subsequent episodes — looking after the babies while an exhausted Jack sneaked in a nap at the hospital, surviving a longshot surgery with an “I’ll be damned” — but it was the Jan. 17 installment of the NBC dramedy that truly took us behind the stethoscope, as we learned that Dr. Katowski was far more steeped in loss than we thought. Still reeling from the death of his wife 14 months prior, he carried on quotidian conversations with her — or the absence of her — at the table, still left her closet as-is, as a living museum. And when he broke down at her gravesite and questioned whether he had the strength to continue, he received the page from the hospital that would cross his path with the Pearsons’ and make him take the first steps toward moving on.

Before we move on to the next episode, let’s take a moment to speak with the man who plays Dr. K to prickly-yet-principled precision, Gerald McRaney. The venerable actor — whose long list of credits include Simon & Simon, Major Dad, Promised Land, Deadwood, Southland, House of Cards, Longmire, and the upcoming 24: Legacy — discussed the magic of the This Is Us pilot, filming that brutal graveyard scene, the feedback about Dr. K he gets from fans, and yes, lemonade.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let me start here: Do you need a hug?
GERALD MCRANEY: (Laughs) Always. Always. It’s amazing — the older you get, the more open to having them you are.

I like that. Now let’s back up, actually, to the beginning. The pilot script for This Is Us comes your way. You read the part of Dr. K. What are your first thoughts? What intrigued you about this role?
What a great role it was to begin with. That one speech after the baby has been lost, advising him to try and move on with his life. When I first read that, it was like, “Gee! Who do I have to pay for this?”

That is one of the most memorable moments of the pilot: Dr. K’s speech to Jack when he’s consoling him. And then you issue that gem: “I’d like to think that one day you’ll be an old man like me talking a young man’s ear off explaining to him how you took the sourest lemon that life had to offer and turned it into something resembling lemonade.”
What a great line!

Did you know how special that line was at the time?
It felt that way to me when I read it, yeah. It’s an interesting use on words, because the doctor doesn’t say turn it into lemonade. Turn it into something resembling lemonade, which in plain speak is: Do the best you can with what you have.

Life isn’t all bunnies and rainbows.
No. And that’s one of the things I love about this show is that it doesn’t tie things up in a nice little ribbon at the end of everything — but people are going to try.

By the way, do waiters bring you free lemonades when you go out to eat now? Is it free lemonades for life?
No. No. I don’t get lemonade anywhere.

Really? I’m surprised. Are you not a fan?
No, I love lemonade! I make my own!

Dr. K returned in the fall finale and barely survived that very critical surgery. Were you surprised that they brought you back again? And were you thinking that when they did that it might be his last go-around considering the seriousness of the situation?
When I do a project like this, I don’t think too much in terms of where it’s headed in terms of my being on the show. It’s just such a joy to do it that I appreciate it when I’m doing it, and that’s one of the things in my approach to acting is I just enjoy the process, not so much the result…

You knew there was something special with this after the pilot. Were you thinking, “They may have me back once or twice”? What kind of role were you expecting?
I thought that they might bring me back for one or two episodes because I knew that they were going to be going back and forth in time. But I had no idea what that might be, and then what it might entail for me.

I heard that initially the way that script was written for the fall finale, Dr. K, like Toby, was left in jeopardy, as a cliffhanger. Were you asking them, “Well, what will my fate be?”
No. I left that totally up to them, because when you’re dealing with writing that good, who the hell am I to tell them how to do something differently? I mean, that would be ridiculous! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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Let’s talk about this week’s episode. Dr. K was physically fragile in the fall finale, and this one showed the emotionally fragile side of Dr. K. We saw why he had constructed those tough, glib walls and just how hard he was holding on to the past with his deceased wife. What was the moment from the episode that gutted you the most? Obviously, his breakdown at the gravesite ranked up there with all the Kleenex moments on the show. But then the morning at the breakfast table—
Well, that was probably the big one for me was that moment at the cemetery. But another one — oddly enough, or maybe not oddly — was the very first time you see him having breakfast, because you don’t know, given this show, what the time frame is. He could have been talking to his wife, and then it’s revealed that there’s nobody there.

As you carry on that conversation with someone who wasn’t there — that was just heartbreaking to watch.
Well, it was heartbreaking to read.

NEXT: McRaney on shooting the graveyard scene: “I don’t know how people deal with that. I really don’t.”