[Spoiler alert: This story contains plot details from Tuesday’s episode of This Is Us, titled “Memphis.”]
You knew it was coming. (Borrowed time has to be returned at one point.)
You knew how it was coming. (This cancer had loudly announced its intentions.)
You just didn’t know when. (It’s got to be in the season finale, right? Maybe the episode before that? Or the season 2 premiere?)
When turned out to be now. The day that had been forecasted (and even flash-foreshadowed) finally arrived on Tuesday, as This Is Us walloped viewers with a deeply moving, uplifting, heart-rending episode that included the long-feared, full-teared death of the terminally ill William Hill (Ron Cephas Jones), the biological father of Randall (Sterling K. Brown). Just a few months ago, the son knocked on the father’s door with a mixture of anger and curiosity about being abandoned at a fire station 36 years ago, and the pair found a fast, awkward, amusing, poignant reconnection (or is that just “connection”?) as the father moved in with the son and his family while he battled stage 4 stomach cancer. Down to his waning wisps of time, the weakened, nasal cannula-wearing William took the fragile Randall (still recovering from a breakdown the week before) on a road trip to Memphis to learn about William’s past, and along the way, they pit-stopped to pay their respects to Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and soaked up every minute of quality time. William showed Randall how to roll down the metaphorical windows of life, took him to his childhood home, which still contained a hidden toy or two, drank from the white side of a segregated drinking fountain, savored some BBQ pork, and hit the club for a reconciliation and impromptu gig with William’s cousin, Ricky (Brian Tyree Henry).
And in flashbacks, we saw William as a little baby, raised by a mother when his father was killed in military action. Soon came the ’70s, when we saw his promising musical connection with Ricky in a blues band severed after our young poet William (Jermel Nakia) journeyed back to Pittsburgh to take care of his ailing mother like she did hers. Her death sent him spiraling into grief, and (after previously resisting temptation) into a life of drugs, leading to Randall’s firehouse abandonment.
Now back in his old stomping ground on his goodbye tour, William made peace with his life, and with Ricky, even sharing a stage with him one more time. There would be no encore. The next morning, reality — and the Grim Reaper — came knocking. Randall checked him into a hospital and was forced to accept the fact that William was going to die in this hospital. Lying in bed, William was finally able to give Randall his collection, “Poems for My Son,” something that sent Rebecca (Mandy Moore) running scared from William’s apartment three and a half decades earlier. He admitted that he was a little scared to died, and Randall held William’s head in his hands and soothingly encouraged him to “just breathe,” just like his father had taught him a long time ago when he was overwhelmed. And then William passed — no, not in Randall’s home, but home in Memphis, and into the arms of his mother in the afterlife.
Let us take a deep breath and pay our respects to the dearly departed — or at least the man who has played him to eloquent excellence — Ron Cephas Jones.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: William is dead. How does it feel when you hear those words?
RON CEPHAS JONES: [Laughs.] That’s interesting, man. There’s just so many feelings. It’s an amalgamation — so many different feelings from the work that we did, to the character study, to being so close to the character, and like a fan, and many of the fans, not wanting him to die, you know? All through the process, I was hoping they might find a cure, but he actually does go away. And we found that out sometime in the middle of shooting. It really said a lot about where I was with the character because I was actually living with that every day, not sure of when my demise was going to happen, but it ended up being at the end of episode 16. So, yeah, it feels wonderfully sad, I guess. It has the top of the top and the bottom of the bottom, and everything in between.
Earlier this season, when we were talking about the flash-forward moment with Randall packing up William’s things, you said you didn’t really want to know when it was going to happen because you thought it was best to play it out like your character. So you really did end up doing that?
I did. It was all the way up until right up until the last minute when we first got the script; that’s when I realized that it was happening. That happened all the way up until the week before the episode.
What was the first thing that struck you when you read this script?
“Is there a way for him to still be in the story, in season 2, after we found that out?” As an actor, that was the first thing that I was thinking and hoping and praying for, which ended up being the case. Then it was the matter of, again, not knowing how or when or what, but I do know that he’s going to carry over into season 2 in some way, just as well as Jack was in all of season 1. The whole story was there; it’s just the way they’re doing their writing. It’s so beautiful and interesting, and it leaves it open for so many possibilities.
NEXT PAGE: Jones on filming the death bed scene with Brown: “It was just so beautifully done”