How Matt Lauer Became the Leader of the Pack

9:00 AM PST 04/11/2012 by Marisa Guthrie
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Ruven Afanador

It's war in the mornings as the "Today" host opens up about his new reported $25 million-a-year deal, a move that (most likely) keeps the NBC juggernaut on top, inspired a strange delivery by "GMA" and has the industry marveling over how one man alone has altered the landscape of TV news.

"Do you want me to shut the door?" asks Lauer, as we adjourn to his third-floor Rockefeller Center office a few weeks earlier. He is seated behind his desk, where nary a single slip of paper or stray paper clip litters the spotless glass top. Lauer -- who is always immaculately dressed and favors slim-cut Zegna suits -- is famously neat and incredibly punctual. Couric jokes that he was Felix to her Oscar. "He's a creature of habit. He'd get there at 4:30 every morning," recalls Couric. "I would stroll in at a quarter to six, my hair would be all over the place." And Curry admits to feeling the pressure to measure up to her fashion forward couchmate. "I look at outfits and think, 'Will that look OK sitting next to Matt Lauer?' So that's been my personal hell."

Lauer admits that there may be a little OCD in his fastidious nature -- his alarm goes off at 4:10 a.m., but his own internal clock wakes him at exactly 4:08 a.m. every day. And he's at the studio at 4:46 a.m. -- give or take one to two minutes. He has his breakfast in his dressing room -- a cup of tea and a bowl of fruit -- while reading the morning papers (The New York Times, Los Angeles Times) and scanning websites (The Daily Beast). By 5:30 a.m., he is going through the morning briefing prepared by the overnight producers. At 6:30 a.m., the anchors begin to edit the cold open with senior broadcast producer Don Nash, a 23-year Today veteran. After the show, Lauer may spend a few hours in his office. But on most days, he's either in the gym or riding his bike in Central Park by noon -- a critical time to unplug when he generally ignores phone calls and e-mail. By late afternoon, the briefings are beginning to hit his inbox for the next morning's show.

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Brought up in Westchester County, N.Y., and then Greenwich, Conn., he describes his childhood as "not Norman Rockwell but close." This despite his parents' divorce when Lauer was 8 and his sister was 13. His parents -- Marilyn, a homemaker who had been a catalogue model, and Jay, a bicycle salesman who rose to vice president of his own bicycle company -- went out of their way not to let their divorce scar their children.

"It was never a situation where it was so tense that on a Friday when I was going to go to my dad's he had to pull up to the end of the driveway and honk the horn and my mother would push me out the door," recalls Lauer. "My dad would come in and have drinks."

Both of Lauer's parents remarried, creating a large blended family with three stepsiblings on both sides. Lauer was only an average student at Woodlands High School in Hartsdale, a small community in Westchester. After his sophomore year, Lauer's mother and stepfather moved the family to tony Greenwich, where they lived in a garden apartment, in order to enroll Lauer in the more academically rigorous Greenwich High School. Lauer continued to spend weekends with his father, most often at one public golf course or another.

"One of the reasons I love the game so much was that it was four and a half hours alone with my dad," says Lauer. "He wasn't the kind of dad who stood behind me all the time, fixing my grip or critiquing my swing. We just played and we talked, and it was magical for me, magical."

Lauer and his father continued to play golf right up until his father's death at the age of 80 in April 1997, less than three months after Lauer was named co-host of Today. "He was the first person I called when I got the job."

If Lauer has reached broadcasting's pinnacle, his career trajectory was not without its bumps. He left Ohio University in 1979, a few credits short of a diploma, in order to take a job as the producer of the noon news at a WOWK in Huntington, W.Va., and by 1980 was promoted to an on-air role. By the time he was 25, he began bouncing from job to job in New York (as host of PM Magazine), Philadelphia (at NBC affiliate WCAU), Boston (hosting weekday program Talk of the Town), New Jersey (hosting a morning show out of Secaucus' WWOR). But nothing lasted. He endured a year and a half of unemployment after WWOR declined to renew his contract. He went on auditions. He got offers for game shows and infomercials. Unable to afford his Manhattan rent, in 1990 he gave up his apartment and retreated with his beloved golden retriever Waldon to a smaller, cheaper rental in North Salem, N.Y.

"I rented this tiny little cottage, and I sat there with my dog and waited for the phone to ring. I was devastated," he says.

The story of his fortuitous brush with a job as a tree trimmer is one Lauer has told before. He put his dog in the car for their morning drive to purchase the newspaper, coffee and a hard roll (he'd budgeted $3 for this morning ritual), when he saw a help-wanted sign on the back of a tree-trimming truck.

"I thought, 'If I'm wearing a hard hat and someone drives by, they're not going to recognize me.' So they're not going to go, 'Oh Matt, you used to host that show, now you're trimming trees. Boy you're done!' "

He applied for the tree-trimming job and waited for the phone to ring. When it finally did, it was WNBC general manager Bill Bolster with an offer at New York's NBC flagship. He never got a call back from the tree-trimming company. In 1995, then-executive producer Zucker, impressed by Lauer's work ethic and natural on-camera presence, tapped him for the Today news desk. Gumbel has been his best friend and golf partner since then. The two men play together several times a week in the high season and -- both clotheshorses -- they even posed for a fashion spread in Golf Digest.

"We've gone on golf trips where we've both emerged from our hotel rooms wearing pretty much the same thing," recalls Gumbel. "And it's a race to see which of us can run back into the room and change first."

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For Lauer, say friends and colleagues, whether to stay at Today came down to a lifestyle choice. Providing for his family beyond the tangible advantages a multimillion-dollar salary confers seems to weigh on Lauer, who endured a rocky period in his marriage in 2006, when he and his wife, Annette, a  Dutch émigré and former model briefly separated. Last year, Annette and their three children, Jack, 10, daughter Romy, 8, and son Thijs, 5, relocated to the Hamptons full time. Lauer's Today schedule requires him to spend most of his week at their Park Avenue co-op, but he does manage to get out to the Hamptons during the week and spends each weekend there. "The life out there is idyllic," Lauer says. "So it's a nice place to have a home base."

On both fronts, home and work, Lauer seems deeply contented. Which might explain a lot about why he decided to stay. "When you get your dream job, you'd be really hard-pressed to leave it," he says. "Unless you've got another dream job out there."

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"Charlie!" Lauer yells across the studio. It is the top of the 8 a.m. hour, just six days before the anchor will call Burke to tell him he's staying, and Charlie Sheen, television's problem child, is miked and seated in Today's interview area. "You ready to open up about your life?!"

"Yeah, man," murmurs Sheen, in New York to dutifully press the flesh with advertisers for his new FX comedy Anger Management. He's brought along a bottle of 1978 Chateau Margaux (which retails
for more than $350) in a velvet-lined box for his interviewer. "You greasing the skids?" says Lauer with a laugh.

As Lauer sits, Sheen asks sotto voce what kind of interview he's planning to conduct. The "morning TV interview," says Lauer casually. "The I-can-come-back-to-work-tomorrow interview."

The fallen-from-grace interview is second nature for Lauer. He's done them all: Britney Spears in the midst of her 2006 tabloid frenzy; Elizabeth Edwards in her first interview after separating from John Edwards in 2010; Lindsay Lohan asserting her sobriety in a February image-rehabilitation interview. It is also in many ways perfectly suited to his gracious temperament and talent for smoothly intruding on the personal lives and private foibles of the rich and powerful.

"I'm going to start off with something that's going to sound awful at first, but bear with me, OK," says Lauer.

Sheen laughs nervously and shifts in his chair.

"There were people who probably last year at this time would have placed a bet that you might not even be around. Literally."

It's not so much a question as an icebreaker. But it gives Sheen --dressed in a black suit, skinny gray-and-black striped tie and white shirt unbuttoned at the neck -- the room he needs to locate his self-deprecating streak.

"I would have taken that action," says Sheen. (Rueful laughter reverberates through the studio.)

Lauer then shows a recent TMZ video of Sheen appearing intoxicated at a Guns N' Roses concert to deftly steer the conversation toward Sheen's unorthodox substance-abuse recovery scheme. "I don't know one addiction specialist who would tell a guy in your position that it's OK to drink," says Lauer.

"If you do," answers Sheen, "I should probably go to that guy." (This gets a bigger laugh.) 

After the interview, Sheen says: "The man has a code. He's noble. He has integrity. He'll embrace the truth if you're willing to let yourself go there."

Sheen does not have a long relationship with Lauer. Their first interview was in September 2011. But they've formed a bond in a short amount of time.

"He's a special cat," says Sheen, adding: "Who knew he was this good? The man has a future."

So it seems.

 

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