This Is Us: Gerald McRaney on Dr. K's heartbreak and lemonade
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."
Let's go back to the gravesite. What do you remember about shooting that scene? Was that the most challenging scene of the episode for you to pull off?
Well, they're all challenging. With that one, though, all I had to do was imagine losing my wife and I could imagine what would become of me. But I don't know if I would be capable of speech at that point. But it was a fairly easy thing for me to get emotional, to even think about such a thing. Plus, over the last several years, I've lost several friends, and I know how I feel just on that level. But to lose somebody who's not only been your lover but is also your best buddy, it just… I don't know how people deal with that. I really don't.
Dr. K is stubborn and a tinge cranky, but there's something avuncular and wise about him. Why do you think people have responded so favorably to your portrayal?
I think the reason they respond favorably to my character is the same reason that they're responding favorably to everybody's character in this show — these are good, decent people. They are people that we know or people that we would like to know, and I think, to a certain degree, that's been missing in television for awhile. I think people are tired of the cynicism… I think people are ready for something else, and maybe it's a step backward, but it was a comfortable place to be. And to examine truthfully, good and decent people and the problems that they go through and the way that they deal with them, and the way that most people deal with their problems is in an honorable, productive fashion.
What was great about the pilot-prequel episode was that it filled in some blanks while providing context, and obviously, we learned a lot more about Dr. K. Had you given much thought to what his back story was? And did this story line up with what you were thinking?
I think it probably went further than what I was thinking in terms of the emotional life of the character. But it did line up with my thinking, obviously a man dealing with that sort of loss is going to be going through the tortures of the damned, but he's a professional. He has to get on with what it is that he does. He's a physician. He's there to heal people, not to burden them with his problems, so that was part of my thinking in the pilot episode.
You could tell in the pilot that he'd had some loss. And he talked about it a little bit. But we didn't know the extent of the pain that Dr. K was in.
Right. I don't think he would have ever revealed that to anyone.
You're known for many different roles. If you had to break it down percentage-wise, how many people on the street are talking to you about Dr. K these days? And what do they say to you about Dr. K?
The vast of majority of them (laughs), and almost all of them tell me how I made them cry. But I've now had two doctors compliment me on the way I play a physician — that I brought so much humanity to the doctor, without making him, you know, a sap.
That's high praise. I'm also wondering if you do get the occasional overenthusiastic fan who actually wonders if you might be available to deliver their child.
(Laughs) Fortunately, not. I will tell you that back on Simon & Simon, Jameson [Parker, his co-star] and I used to get letters from people wanting us to find their lost uncle, because they actually thought that we were private investigators. Jameson once told a journalist about that and the journalist's response was, "Well, Jameson, you do realize there are people out there who think that Star Trek is filmed on location."
Dan said that he'd be interested in having the show explore a young Dr. K. What do you image a young Dr. K looks like, figuratively or literally?
He has hair.
Is he a cocksure doctor at that point—
Oh, I think most people out of medical school have that sort of cocksure attitude about themselves. If they don't, I don't think they would've survived medical school and internship. But a little of that wears off as you're dragged down the road practicing medicine. You can't stay cocksure for very long in that racket, I don't think.
Is that something you'd be interested in seeing — the young Dr. K episode?
Oh, yes, absolutely. It's good stuff to explore. And given the format of this show, you can do anything.
Have you already talked with Dan about another return for Dr. K this season? I know you're busy with 24: Legacy.
No. I haven't talked to him about it. I think there is something in the works but I don't really have any idea what that might be.
But you'll take that call whenever you can fit it?
Oh, absolutely! I'm not a complete fool.
Will you be back on House of Cards?
I have no idea. Again, that's one of those things that if they write it, I will be there.
Do you have a dream Dr. K scene in your head that you'd love to do? I personally vote for a babysitting-the-triplets episode.
We sort of did that, but I would like to get into that more myself. I don't know how long they intend for Dr. K to survive, but I would like to see him trying to take care of the triplets when they're, like, 10 years old.
How do you imagine that would go?
Well, that may be what causes the doctor's demise — trying to keep up with three 10-year-olds.
To read a Q&A with Mandy Moore about Tuesday's episode, click here.
This Is Us
NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.