It's just after 1 a.m. and Milo Ventimiglia, finally settling into his Minneapolis hotel room after a climactic Super Bowl night, can at long last sleep with one less secret to keep.
"I'm happy everyone is in the know," he says by phone.
As flawed-but-nearly-perfect patriarch Jack Pearson on NBC's megahit "This Is Us," Ventimiglia has joined the roster of TV's most beloved dads. So beloved, in fact, that the character's death, revealed in the show's debut season, and the mystery surrounding it, kindled the question, "How did Jack die?" It quickly became a pop culture phenomenon rife with conspiracy theories.
On Sunday, the answer came. (This is ... where the spoilers start.)
With its plum post-Super Bowl slot, the time-jumping, twist-friendly family drama once and for all revealed that Jack died of cardiac arrest after inhaling too much smoke while saving his family's dog -- and a few other things -- as a fire, sparked by a faulty slow cooker, ravaged the Pearson home.
"He got the dog!" the 40-year-old actor exclaims, still lively after a long night that included an appearance on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." "And he got everything else out. He got the moon necklace. He got the photo albums. Like, come on, Jack. Really?" (Take heart: Just because the mystery has been solved, the character won't be disappearing.)
The episode, which stands as the most-watched post-Super Bowl entertainment telecast in six years, with an average of 27 million viewers, had fans reaching for tissue boxes -- and their mobile devices. Barely halfway into the episode, Twitter was already reporting it was the most-tweeted episode to date in the show's two-season run.
"I feel for the audience right now," Ventimiglia says, "because not only did they get hit with learning how Jack died, but, on Tuesday night, they're gonna get hit with another whammy."
But in the spirit of the show, let's flash back to a few days ago, when Ventimiglia was riding out the last days of the mystery at his home in Los Angeles. (And because you're probably wondering: Yes, his smoke detectors have batteries -- "I change them regularly" -- and, yes, the two slow cookers in his kitchen function properly.)
The actor -- who up until now was best known for his breakout roles as Jess Mariano, the moody bad-boy boyfriend to Rory in "Gilmore Girls," and Peter Petrelli, the medical caregiver with superhuman powers in "Heroes" -- is very much like the genial, family man-type character he currently portrays. A floor-to-ceiling photo collage of friends and family lines a wall in his kitchen. He built part of his backyard patio with his father, Peter -- their names are inscribed in the concrete footings. And as a hobbyist photographer -- nearly every drawer in his office is a warehouse for lenses, film, etc. -- he is known to take pictures, whether on set or in life, and gift them as keepsakes.