Warning: Spoilers ahead!
When the pilot episode of This Is Us aired last September, we never expected we’d feel so deeply connected to William, Randall’s biological father. But after some initial hesitation, William—with his lovable demeanor and strong morals—had worked his way into our hearts and by the time the credits rolled tonight (February 21), we didn’t want to let him go.
Yes, sadly, after a memorable and moving road trip to Memphis, William succumbed to the cancer he’s been fighting over the last year. In his last moments of life, Randall clasped his hands around William’s face—much like his dad, Jack, used to—and said, “You’re OK, Dad. Breathe with me.” Cut to Randall driving out of Memphis; he stops for the ducks (a nod to the webbed little guys that William loved at the famed Peabody Hotel) crossing the street with the windows down and the music up. William might be gone in the physical sense, but his spirit remains.
“It was an open mouth moment [when I read the script],” Ron Cephas Jones (who plays William) told me. “Like, ‘I can’t believe what I’m reading.’ Me, Sterling [K. Brown], and Susan [Kelechi Watson], I remember us walking out of the building after the table read, and one of us was waiting for the other to confirm what we just read. We were almost like, ‘There’s something special here, and I’m not sure if it’s real or not.’ It was this moment of frightening horror and extreme excitement all in one.”
While the episode does mark the end of William in the present day, it won’t be the last you see of the actor. If it’s any solace, Cephas Jones will return to This Is Us in season two, thanks to the show’s use of flashbacks. “I [was worried I] wouldn’t get to work with Sterling again, but the way the show works, I’m excited about that in season two,” the 60-year-old actor says. “I don’t have specifics, but I know I’ll be seeing him one way or another and that’s good enough for me.”
When the cast and crew began shooting the episode titled “Memphis,” they actually shot the death bed scene first. “It gave the entire thing a ghostly, hallucinogenic feeling,” executive producer and director Glenn Ficarra reveals. “Death is not a release on [This Is Us],” executive producer and director John Requa adds. “Our main character (Jack) has never been alive [in the present day] the entire time [on this show]. So we will see more of William.”
Still, that doesn’t take away the pain that Randall must endure—or how his two little girls and wife will react when he tells them the news. “It’s the beginning of Randall carrying on,” Requa says. “[There will be] more stories with that—and William, in flashbacks. So when that is revealed, it’s going to be illuminating; it’s going to send our characters off in new directions that will generate more story, But that’s the thing…death is never the end for the people that survive. It’s only the end for the people that die. They’re the lucky ones. For the rest of us, it affects our lives and we carry it with us. As we move forward, we’ll see how it changes Randall into next season and beyond. When you see what happens, you’ll look back at this episode and go, ‘Oh!’ [Laughs] ‘The seeds were sewn.’”
Still, I’m not ready to say goodbye to William quite yet, so I sat down with Cephas Jones to talk about the emotional arc and reminisce on his final episode. Read on.
Glamour: Every time I see you, I have this inclination to say, “William! You’re alive! You’re healthy!” [Laughs] What’s the reaction when you see fans on the street?
Ron Cephas Jones: [Laughs] They always say, “I hope you don’t die! I love you, and I hope they find a miracle cure for you! It happens; it happens!” That’s the main thing. This is going to be hard for a lot of people. It’s going to be so difficult. I check some of the stuff on the fan pages because I’m not on Twitter or Instagram, but some of the fans are going to be devastated.
Glamour: In person, you look so much younger than you do on the show. Fans must tell you that, too.
RCJ: I’m 60, but I look a little younger when I cut my goatee and have a haircut. I’ve always had a younger look. It’s working for me now. It used to work against me ’cause I could never get roles for fathers or school teachers. They’d be like, “He just doesn’t look old enough.” I also have no gray. So, they put the gray in on the show. But I’m 60 and Sterling is still in his 30s. He’s old enough to be my son.
Glamour: As sad as tonight’s episode is, there’s some solace in knowing we haven’t seen the last of you. I’m so thrilled you’ll be back.
RCJ: Me too! I was just happy to know that I’m coming back. That was the only thing, and it scared me in the beginning and in the course [of this season] because I wasn’t sure. [The producers] kept giving me metaphors like, “You know, the show is shot in flashbacks.” I was like, “Yeah, but that’s not telling me if I’m coming back!” But it started to be clear that the character is going to come back. There’s that space between the young William and the older William, after he drops the baby off and meets Rebecca. From that time up, there’s this whole piece of life that you don’t know about—a young adult as opposed to a young man. Those are some interesting years because the mother passes away, he loses it, goes into addiction, he goes into recovery, he meets his boyfriend. There’s a lot of story.
Glamour: Yeah, I wanted to see the boyfriend, Jesse, come back again.
RCJ: That could happen.
Glamour: Were you surprised when you read that William was gay or at least bisexual?
RCJ: I wasn’t shocked because of [how good] the writing [was]. They introduced it in a way that was…it seemed to fit because that’s a part of the life we don’t know about William. How he gets there is interesting because we talked about that, and there was just some wonderful ideas about that and that whole artistic world. Like, when he gets on the bus and sees the girl, but before that, you saw the scene where he looks at the men [and] asks them, “Do you want to hang out?” So how’d he get from that to seeing a girl on the bus and then back to that?
Glamour: Some of my favorite scenes were with you—William—and Kevin (Justin Hartley). I love that William was like, “Aren’t you the Manny?”
RCJ: I know! He’s so funny! And you know William has that kind of cool kind of thing, so it really worked. It was just so much fun. I’m a big fan of Justin’s. He’s one of my favorite characters. I heard he was exquisite on [Young and the Restless]. He has this impeccable comedic timing. Every time I’m around him I just laugh a lot because he’s just so funny. But we realized that chemistry just really worked and had a lot of fun with it. I would love to do more with him.
Glamour: The barbershop scene and the integrated fountain scene in tonight’s episode were all improvised with you and Sterling. That’s a special working relationship right there. What do you guys talk about in those moments when the cameras aren’t rolling?
RCJ: Probably acting. We talk about our kids. He’s got two young boys, and my daughter is older, so I talk about my daughter when she was his kids’ age. And he talks about the day when his kids become my daughter’s age. We talk about New York and a lot of the people that we both know. We have this incredible New York connection. We talk about family, friends, and food! Both of us like to eat. We ask, “Where have you eaten before? What parts of the world have you eaten? Or what kind of music or band do you like?” It’s a lot of good stuff like that. [Laughs]
The next new episode of This Is Us airs on Tuesday, March 7.