In the spring of 2020, a recurring nightmare began tormenting the actor Ron Cephas Jones. A theater veteran known for his work on the NBC drama “This Is Us,” Jones is 64 and wiry, with short waves of black hair and an almond-shaped face. In the dream, he is delivering a monologue onstage — darkened room, white backlights — when he notices something amiss. Everyone in the audience is looking elsewhere, in seemingly every direction but his. Jones waves and shouts, trying to draw the crowd’s attention. But no matter how desperately he screams, no one registers his presence. He is there but not there, a ghost among the living.
In the new Broadway play “Clyde’s,” where Jones plays a kind of spiritual leader to a beleaguered crew of recently incarcerated sandwich cooks, he is the show’s transfixing center of gravity — the very opposite of ghostly incorporeality. But when the nightmares began, Jones really was in mortal peril.
In May of last year, he received a double-lung transplant after years of suffering in secret from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Jones spent nearly two months at the Ronald Reagan U.C.L.A. Medical Center in Los Angeles on and off a ventilator, learning to breathe and then eat and then walk again. The hope of one day returning to the theater was the fire that fueled his recovery.
“My whole life has been the stage,” Jones said recently, over lunch at a restaurant a few blocks from the theater where “Clyde’s” is running. “The idea of not performing again seemed worse to me than death.”
Jones is the kind of actor who works like chipotle mayo — you don’t always think to look for him, but you’re happy when he shows up. About six years ago, after three decades of working on and off Broadway in New York, he began quietly lending credence to a crop of ambitious streaming-era dramas. He added a touch of warmth to Sam Esmail’s “Mr. Robot,” a note of vulnerability to Marvel’s “Luke Cage,” a foreboding undercurrent to Stephen King’s “Lisey’s Story.” But his biggest breakthrough — and two Emmy Awards, for outstanding guest actor — came from the ratings smash “This Is Us,” where Jones has played William, the biological father of Sterling K. Brown’s character, Randall, since 2016.
On a series with no shortage of weepy story lines, William is a figure of singular pathos. The character, who is Black, bisexual, a former drug addict, an absentee father and has terminal cancer, would in lesser hands strain the limits of good taste. But Jones’s soulful performance — the weather-beaten brow, the voice like brushed wool — confers a lived-in texture and depth.
The same year that Jones was cast as William, he complained to his doctor about difficulty breathing. An X-ray confirmed advanced emphysema, a pulmonary condition in which damage to the lungs deprives the blood of oxygen. Jones, who had been a two-packs-a-day smoker for most of his life, was told the disease was progressive — left untreated, his lungs would grow weaker and eventually collapse. He was advised to consider a transplant. But he shut down the idea after learning the risks involved. Even if his body accepted the new lungs, there was a 31 percent chance he would be permanently bound to an oxygen tank.
“I was in total denial,” Jones said. “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.”
For a year after his diagnosis, Jones continued smoking up to 12 cigarettes a day. He finally changed course in 2017, after an incident on the set of “This Is Us.” While filming a long outdoor scene with Susan Kelechi Watson, who plays William’s daughter-in-law, Jones became increasingly short of breath. He sensed his heart pounding and broke into a sweat. He felt as if he were underwater. After someone called an ambulance, an emergency responder resuscitated him using an oxygen tank. Denial was no longer an option.
“You can see in his eyes that he made the right decision,” said the actress Jasmine Cephas Jones, Jones’s daughter and an original cast member of “Hamilton.” “I feel like I have my dad back.”
Many of Jones’s characters, including Montrellous, the ex-convict he portrays in “Clyde’s,” are pacific, hard-luck men in pursuit of redemption. The playwright Lynn Nottage, who met Jones in the 2000s when both were members of the Labyrinth Theater Company, said she wrote Montrellous with Jones in mind.
“He moves through the world like a cool jazz man, but is also generous and a nurturer,” Nottage said. “The same qualities that he brings to his acting are the qualities that he embodies in real life.”
Jones was first drawn to performance as a young man during the Black Arts Movement in the 1970s. Born and raised in Paterson, N.J., he took Route 4 to Harlem on weekends to see jazz at St. Nick’s Pub, or plays at the National Black Theater or Avery Fisher Hall (now David Geffen Hall) at Lincoln Center. After graduating with a theater degree from Ramapo College, in 1978, Jones immersed himself in the art scene in New York but was derailed when he developed a crippling heroin addiction. Encouraged by his mother, he moved to Los Angeles for a fresh start and spent four years working as a bus driver.
Eventually, Jones turned to gambling and relapsed. He said he was arrested with 10 small bags of heroin and narrowly escaped a five-year prison sentence. A judge sent him back East — to a rehabilitation center in Albany, N.Y. — but the program didn’t take. Jones relapsed a second and third time. His mother, who had taken him in after Albany, kicked him out of the house and stopped answering his phone calls.
“It was the tough love thing,” Jones said. “But it felt like everything I had loved was gone.”
Jones hit rock bottom and said that for a while he slept on a bench in Eastside Park in Paterson. He was saved by an uncle who invited him to stay at his apartment in Harlem. It was there, in 1986, that he got clean for the last time.
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. By then he was a father — Jasmine was born in 1989 — and went on to a wide-ranging stage career, starring in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train,” John Patrick Shanley’s “Storefront Church” and “Richard III.”
“Clyde’s” is his first appearance on Broadway in seven years. After his lung transplant, Jones was determined to prove that he could still perform at the highest level, and for the standard eight shows per week. In his review of the play for The Times, Jesse Green wrote that Jones perfectly embodies his character, balancing a “Zen imperturbability with subtle dashes of pain and sacrifice.”
“It was kind of miraculous to see him up there so full-bodied,” said Nottage, who, though aware of Jones’s operation, said it was never discussed during rehearsals this summer. “You would never know that he had any kind of struggle.”
“Clyde’s” opens with a monologue, in which Montrellous attempts to persuade Clyde, played by Uzo Aduba, to change the menu at her restaurant. On opening night late last month, when the curtain lifted and revealed a packed crowd, including many of Jones’s friends and family, he said he was so overcome with emotion that he nearly screamed his first line.
“I was so eager that all of the air from my diaphragm just came rushing out at once,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that I could be heard.”