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Lester Holt on His Rise to the Top and Replacing Friend Brian Williams: “This Wasn’t About Us”

Holt, named one of THR's 35 Most Powerful People in Media in the New York issue, publishing Wednesday, took over the anchor chair at NBC News during crisis. He now dominates ratings (and the newsroom) with a quiet, understated confidence that reveals more work ethic than ego — hence, that "Iron Pants" nickname.

This story first appeared in the April 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

“Anchoring is neat, but it’s not oxygen for me,” says Lester Holt, sitting behind his desk at NBC News at Rockefeller Center. It is early March, a week after Super Tuesday, when the 57-year-old, in one of his typical marathons, was on the air nearly continuously from 6:30 p.m. until 2 a.m. And it is nearly 13 months to the day after Brian Williams, his predecessor at Nightly News, ceded the chair in the wake of a scandal that all but blew up the news division.

Ironically, Holt’s ascension came just as he was considering scaling back his duties. He had talked to NBC News president Deborah Turness and then-group chief Pat Fili-Krushel about his demanding workload, which included anchoring for more than a decade the weekend editions of Today and Nightly News and serving as primary anchor of Dateline. “That’s a pretty good little lineup there,” he reasons. “It allowed me to be compensated well. I had much of the stature of the other anchors here, but I thought it’s not the brass ring. So it wasn’t that I had settled, but it was a recognition that, you know, you’ve been spending so much time climbing up the ladder, maybe you need to stop on the rung you’re on and look out and enjoy the view.”

In late 2014, when Williams signed a new deal worth a reported $50?million over five years, there was nowhere for Holt to go at NBC. That abruptly changed in February 2015 when Williams’ penchant for embellishment outraged viewers and journalists, thrusting Holt into the awkward position of temporary stand-in. Four long months later — with Williams still serving a six-month suspension — and after an internal investigation and a barrage of gossip about cratering morale in the newsroom, NBC News chairman Andrew Lack gave Holt the job permanently. “His first reaction was for Brian; ‘How’s Brian doing? Is he OK?’?” Lack recalls now. “What I like about Lester, he is not a careerist. He’s not angling. He was never angling.”

Williams (left) and Holt covered Michael Jackson’s memorial service together in July 2009. 

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It also helped that Holt was so well-liked in the newsroom. “During a period of time that was uneasy, he was a calming influence,” says Sam Singal, who was promoted to executive producer of the Nightly broadcast in September, three months after Holt officially assumed the chair. “It made for the easiest possible transition given the circumstances.”

After working together for more than a decade, Holt and Williams — now anchoring breaking news on MSNBC — don’t have much occasion to interact. When they see each other in the halls of 30 Rock, where a small framed portrait of Williams hangs with the dates of his Nightly tenure (2004-15), they are friendly. “One of the things I made clear — we both made clear to each other — this wasn’t about us. It was the situation. I have tremendous respect for Brian,” says Holt, his eyes wandering to one of the flat-screens on the wall opposite his desk, the one tuned to MSNBC. “I just watched him over your shoulder a moment ago,” he says with a laugh. “He was up there doing the special report.”

Of course, Holt would have liked to get the job under less wrenching circumstances. “But when I got the call, the one thing I didn’t have to ask myself was, ‘Why me?” he says. “I’m perfectly qualified. I have always thought that I can play any position in this organization. There was an [he mouths the words ‘oh shit’] moment. But not, ‘Why me?’?”

Holt’s career at NBC News began at a Starbucks on Route 17 in New Jersey, an inauspicious strip of highway conveniently located between Newark airport and MSNBC’s Secaucus headquarters. That’s where he had his first interview at NBC’s then-nascent cable spinoff. It was June 2000, and he had been demoted at WBBM in Chicago, where he’d worked for 14 years.

MSNBC was launching a program called Home Page, co-hosted by a panel of women including Mika Brzezinski and Ashleigh Banfield. “It was kind of the forerunner to The View, and they were talking to me about being a newsreader on it,” he recalls. “It was about a 30-minute interview, and they put me back in the car.” He didn’t hear a thing for two months, when he was about to accept a job at KNTV, the NBC affiliate in San Jose, Calif. It would have been a homecoming for Holt, who grew up in Sacramento, while putting Holt and his family — wife Carol and then-young sons Stefan (now an anchor at WNBC New York) and Cameron (an analyst at Morgan Stanley) — nearer to Holt’s parents.

Holt in 1981, when he landed at WCBS in New York, two years after he had dropped out of California State University Sacramento, to work at a San Francisco radio station. 

Then he got a call from the head of talent at NBC News, Elena Nachmanoff, who persuaded him to come back to Secaucus for one more interview — instead, he was asked to audition. He recalls being “slightly offended” given his 19 years of experience. “They put me on the set and put the earphone in, and they had me reading news. Then in my ear they started giving me [hypothetical] breaking news: We’ve gotten reports that Raisa Gorbachev has died.” This was several months after her actual death from leukemia. Holt effortlessly delivered the fictional update: “?‘We have breaking news, Raisa Gorbachev, the wife of Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who ushered in the era of glasnost, has died, apparently a pool accident in Moscow.’ I just started doing what I do. I’m thinking, ‘Is this the best you guys have got?’?”

He was on his way back to the airport when his phone rang. Lack, then in his first stint as NBC News chief, had seen Holt’s tape. “I remember it as if it were yesterday,” says Lack. “Lester popped.”

Holt’s breakthrough at MSNBC was the 2000 election recount — he spent long stretches at the MSNBC anchor desk, earning him the sobriquet Iron Pants. In 2003, he was called up to NBC News to anchor the weekend edition of Todayfollowing the sudden death of David Bloom in Iraq. He began contributing to Dateline in 2006 and was helming the weekend Nightly News by 2007. Says Lack, “He’s got a work ethic as if he’s going to prove to you every day that he deserves whatever he’s gotten.”

When suicide bombers struck in Brussels on the morning of March 22, Holt had just finished anchoring from Cuba. The next three days were an odyssey of airports and European highways: Havana to Miami to JFK, in to 30 Rock to anchor an hourlong Tuesday newscast, then back to JFK for a flight to Paris that landed Wednesday morning, then by car to Brussels, where he anchored Nightly from the Place de la Bourse on Wednesday night, back to Paris for a flight to JFK, which landed Thursday afternoon, then in to 30 Rock in time for the Nightly rundown meeting at 2:30 p.m. With 9?million viewers a night, Holt’s Nightly is the No.?1 newscast in total viewers and in the 25-to-54 demographic. And NBC News executives are finalizing a new long-term deal with Holt, network sources tell THR.

When he’s not in the field, Holt usually arrives at the office in time for the first Nightly News meeting at 9:30 a.m., and if news warrants, he’ll stay until 10?p.m. to provide live updates for the West Coast broadcast. He writes the copy that opens the program — the “good evening page” — and edits the rest. “My function as the anchor is to be the viewers’ advocate. I don’t have to be this super-duper guy. I’ve got to bring it all together and put it in a way that people can understand.” He does not have the managing editor title, as Williams did. “I reject the notion that being an anchor necessarily makes you a good producer. With or without the title, my voice is listened to.”

Holt often takes the subway (or a CitiBike) from his home in the Flatiron District to NBC News headquarters. When he’s not working, he likes to play bass guitar. He recently recruited some NBC News colleagues for a band — the 30 Rockers. He also has a nerd’s obsession with aviation. He reads Aviation Week & Space Technology and indulges in computer flight simulators; X-Plane is a favorite. (Stefan, who inherited Holt’s obsession with flight and has a pilot’s license, occasionally takes him flying.)

“There is no hidden Lester,” notes Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd. “What you see is what you get.”

When Holt still was filling in for Williams, much was made of his race. He is the first African-American to solo anchor the broadcast evening news — Max Robison was named co-anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight in 1978 and CNN’s Bernard Shaw anchored the cable network’s primetime news program beginning in 1980. “He has gone through the corridors of hell to reach that anchor chair,” says Shaw, who knew Holt when they both worked in Chicago. “This guy is pit-bull tough. He has a poet’s writing touch, and he has one of the most essential skills for a reporter: He listens. And that has nothing to do with color.”

When I ask Holt whether he ever has experienced racial prejudice in his career, he’s quick to say no, then stops himself.

“I’m only pausing because I’m trying to think of a moment …” he trails off before continuing. “There was a situation where there was a potential job opportunity, but the thinking was maybe they didn’t want to put two black people together because the co-anchor already in place was black. I didn’t take that really as a racist thing.”

I point out that few would question the appropriateness of two white anchors. He agrees then adds, “But they might say we don’t want to put two men there.

“I also don’t look for offense,” he continues. “My radar is not up. I was raised with a lot of pride in who I am.”

Holt’s wife is white. They met in 1979 when Carol was working as a flight attendant at United and Holt was at KCBS radio in San Francisco. “I’m black and she’s white, but we came from similar socio-economic backgrounds. My father was in the Air Force, her father worked for Boeing. We spent a lot of our marriage in big cities; New York, L.A., Chicago, San Francisco. Living in Manhattan, everybody’s brown, you’re the weird one,” he laughs, glancing at my pale skin. Still, he acknowledges the importance of his role at a time of heightened racial tensions — police violence, Donald Trump, #OscarsSoWhite. “I bring a sensitivity and awareness,” he says. “I’m able to go after those stories in a different way.”

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Holt attended a 2014 movie premiere with his wife, Carol Hagen. They’ve been married since 1982. 

In fact, he recalls coming to WBBM, the CBS affiliate in Chicago, in 1986 after the station had endured a 10-month boycott organized by Jesse Jackson’s PUSH coalition in retaliation for the demotion of African-American anchor Harry Porterfield. “I really didn’t quite know what I was walking into,” he allows. “But you have to remember I was 27 years old at the time.” Holt would remain there until his own demotion in 2000, an episode that shook his confidence and spurred him to work even harder.

“It knocked me back on my heels more than I think most people knew. People joke about Iron Pants and my work ethic,” he says. “I’ve always had a strong work ethic, but I think it was hyper after that. It lasted for a number of years, where I felt, ‘You’re not good enough, you’ve got to be better.’ It really rocked me.”

When I ask him what he learned from the experience, he offers a candid assessment of the Darwinian nature of TV news that also underscores Holt’s appeal. “One of the things I’ve learned is that your bosses aren’t your friends. The people I work for here are terrific. I respect them. I adore them. But this is a business. And I’m riding along right now at a pretty nice altitude, but I don’t ever take it for granted,” he says. “Because for a long time, except for weekends, I didn’t anchor this broadcast, I watched it.”