Mon. May 20th, 2024

Ron Cephas Jones, Emmy Winner for ‘This Is Us,’ Dies at 66

After facing homelessness in his youth, he became an admired theater and television actor, playing tough and weathered but vulnerable characters.

Ron Cephas Jones, a homeless heroin addict in his youth who became an admired actor in New York theater and on several television shows including “This Is Us,” a family drama for which he won two Emmy Awards, has died. He was 66.

The writer and creator of “This Is Us,” Dan Fogelman, posted about Mr. Jones’s death on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. Mr. Jones’s manager, Dan Spilo, told The Associated Press that Mr. Jones died from “a longstanding pulmonary issue,” but did not specify where and when he died.

Mr. Jones received a double-lung transplant in 2020, after years of living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

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A portrait of Mr. Jones standing on a stairway, wearing a dark sweater, dark pants, glasses and a scarf.
Ron Cephas Jones in 2021. Though he gained fame and two Emmy Awards for his work on television, he said, “My whole life has been the stage.”Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times
Mr. Jones was known for playing characters who, like him, wrenched from past experiences of personal desperation a hard-won toughness and emotional vulnerability.

On “This Is Us,” which ran on NBC from 2016 until last year and featured appearances from Mr. Jones in every season, he frequently made speeches. He played William “Shakespeare” Hill, a former drug addict with terminal cancer who connects at the end of his life with a son, Randall Pearson (played by Sterling K. Brown), whom he had left outside a fire station at birth.

“On a series with no shortage of weepy story lines, William is a figure of singular pathos,” Reggie Ugwu wrote in a 2021 profile of Mr. Jones for The Times, adding, “But Jones’s soulful performance — the weather-beaten brow, the voice like brushed wool — confers a lived-in texture and depth.”

Mr. Jones told the Hollywood news site Gold Derby in 2017, “I realized that so much of the man is inside of me, and my history.”

For “This Is Us,” Mr. Jones received Emmy nominations for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series in 2017 and outstanding guest actor in a drama series in 2018, 2019 and 2020. He won the guest actor award in 2018 and 2020.

His most recent star turn in the theater was in “Clyde’s,” which was written by Lynn Nottage and ran on Broadway from the fall of 2021 to the winter of 2022. It concerned a crew of ex-convicts working as sandwich makers at a truck stop. Mr. Jones played Montrellous, an elder of the group who finds a passion in his job that inspires his beleaguered colleagues.

The Times called Mr. Jones “the show’s transfixing center of gravity,” capable of blending “Zen imperturbability with subtle dashes of pain and sacrifice.” He was nominated for a Tony Award for best featured actor in a play and won awards from the Drama Desk and the Drama League.

In 2012, Mr. Jones played the lead in a production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” by the Public Theater that appeared in prisons and homeless shelters in addition to the company’s base near Astor Place in Manhattan.

“No character in Shakespeare is as hungry for power as Richard III,” Charles Isherwood wrote in a review for The Times. “And it’s hard to think of an actor with a naturally hungrier look than Ron Cephas Jones, the tall, beanpole-thin, snakelike actor who portrays the title character.”

Mr. Isherwood said Mr. Jones made “a strikingly sinister-looking Richard” and described his depiction of Richard’s mendacity as “hypnotically persuasive.”

Characterizing Mr. Jones’s place in the theater world, The Times labeled him in 2012 “a stalwart New York actor” equally comfortable playing Othello or Caliban as he was playing a serial killer in a contemporary drama set on Rikers Island.

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Mr. Jones, wearing tattered clothes, gestures and speaks to Thomas Sadoski, wearing a white jacket with an untied bow tie, as Anthony O’Donnell looks on, frowning.
Mr. Jones, right, as Caliban in the 2010 Bridge Project production of “The Tempest” at the BAM Harvey. With him are Anthony O’Donnell, left, as Trinculo and Thomas Sadoski as Stephano.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Mr. Jones, wearing tattered clothes, gestures and speaks to Thomas Sadoski, wearing a white jacket with an untied bow tie, as Anthony O’Donnell looks on, frowning.

Ron Cephas Jones was born on Jan. 8, 1957, in Paterson, N.J., where he grew up. He graduated from Ramapo College with a theater degree in 1978. In his youth, he had gone to Harlem to see jazz shows and plays, and he returned to New York after graduating to find a place in the art scene. He developed a heroin addiction that stalled his ambitions.

He attempted to get clean during a series of moves and career changes — for four years, he was a bus driver in Los Angeles — but for a long time, nothing stuck. At one point he was arrested with 10 small bags of heroin and, he told The Times in 2021, he barely escaped serving a five-year prison sentence.

He relapsed again and again, eventually prompting his mother to stop answering his phone calls. In the mid-1980s, he slept on a bench in Paterson’s Eastside Park. An uncle invited Mr. Jones to stay with him at his Harlem apartment. In 1986, he succeeded in sobering up. In 1990, he starred in his first play, “Don’t Explain” by Samuel B. Harps, at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

He had a daughter, Jasmine Cephas Jones, in 1989 with the jazz singer Kim Lesley. Ms. Jones also became a successful actress. In the original 2015 Broadway production of “Hamilton,” she played Peggy Schuyler, Alexander Hamilton’s sister-in-law, and Maria Reynolds, his mistress. In 2020, she won an Emmy for her role in the web series “#FreeRayshawn.” In 2021, she and Mr. Jones announced the Emmy nominations together.

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A smiling Mr. Jones, wearing a jacket, an open-neck white shirt and a hat, stands next to Jasmine Cephas Jones, wearing a deep purple dress, on a red carpet.
Mr. Jones with his daughter, Jasmine Cephas Jones, in 2021 at the series premiere of “Blindspotting,” in which she appeared.Credit…Chris Delmas/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A smiling Mr. Jones, wearing a jacket, an open-neck white shirt and a hat, stands next to Jasmine Cephas Jones, wearing a deep purple dress, on a red carpet.

A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Jones smoked two packs a day for most of his life, and he kept smoking even after his emphysema diagnosis.

“I was in total denial,” he told The Times in 2021. “I told myself that it would pass, or that I was just getting older. I was afraid and didn’t want to change what I wasn’t ready to change.”

Other TV shows in which he made notable appearances include “Mr. Robot,” “Luke Cage” and “Lisey’s Story.” New York Times reviews of his theater work were usually enthusiastic. In 2012, Mr. Isherwood called him “commandingly grave” in John Patrick Shanley’s play “Storefront Church,” and in 2015, Laura Collins-Hughes described his performance as Prospero in “The Tempest” as “moving” and “understated.”

“He moves through the world like a cool jazz man, but is also generous and a nurturer,” Ms. Nottage told The Times in 2021. “The same qualities that he brings to his acting are the qualities that he embodies in real life.”

He managed to evoke that sensibility in Ms. Nottage’s play despite having recently spent two months in the hospital recovering from his lung surgery.

“My whole life has been the stage,” Mr. Jones told The Times. “The idea of not performing again seemed worse to me than death.”

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