May 24, 2004 12:00 PM

Lester Holt was thrilled to play guitar while the Captain and Tennille performed on the Today show last July. But the dapper newsman’s wife was far happier when the gig was over. “He played the song ‘Do That to Me One More Time’ 25 to 30 times a day for two weeks, practicing,” Carol Holt, 47, recalls. “You know how annoying it is to hear the same song 25 to 30 times a day? I was walking around with my hands over my ears screaming, ‘Noooo!'”

These days it’s not quite so easy to tune out Holt, 45. He anchors Lester Holt Live on MSNBC, cohosts Today Weekend Edition, is the first person Today calls when Matt Lauer or Ann Curry need a break and occasionally sits in for Tom Brokaw on NBC Nightly News. “Around here,” says MSNBC vice president Mark Effron, “the nickname for Lester is Iron Pants, because he can sit down and anchor for hours.” Says Iron Pants himself: “When there’s breaking news, I don’t want to leave the chair.”

He’s owned the chair for several big news stories—the Democratic primaries, last summer’s blackout and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s race for California’s governorship. During the war in Iraq last spring, Holt was on-air so much two New York City disc jockeys wrote a ditty about him, which went like this: Stuck all day in front of my TV, and I get mad at most of the folks I see…If you want my vote, you should watch Lester Holt. “I thought it was very clever,” Holt says. “I want to come across as a guy you could have a beer with or hang out with.” On Weekend Holt relishes the chance to prove he’s no stiff anchorman—hence the jam session with a certain ’70s pop duo. “He lets his hair down,” says high school pal Tito Lopez. “When I saw him on that show, I went, ‘Oh, there’s the Lester I knew!'”

That would be the former high school class clown who talked his way into a job at a local radio station as a Sacramento teen. The youngest of four children born to retired Air Force master sergeant Lester, 72, and regional planner June, 73, Holt developed his trademark clipped delivery covering the fire and police beat and kept his broadcasting job while studying at California State University, Sacramento. “He was the fastest mike in the west,” says Carol, a homemaker, who met Lester in 1980 while she was a flight attendant. By the time they married in 1982, shortly after his graduation, Holt had landed a reporting job at a New York City television station. Eventually, an opportunity to anchor took him to Chicago, where he stayed for 14 years until, he says, “the station offered me a lesser position with less money. I figured it would be a good time to look for something else.”

He didn’t have to look long. A former boss told him about an opening at MSNBC, and Holt joined the cable station in July 2000. Last April he landed the anchor spot on Weekend following the death of correspondent David Bloom. “People say they’re overworking me. I say that’s opportunity,” says Holt. “You never get bored.” And his deadpan humor keeps the rest of the crew fresh too. “He will say something with such a straight face that you think he’s serious,” says his Weekend cohost Campbell Brown. “Then he makes a crack that sends you howling. His delivery is perfect.”

If only his table tennis game were as good. At the family’s Manhattan apartment, Holt and sons Stefan, 17, and Cameron, 14, wage nightly Ping-Pong battles, and Dad is taking his lumps. “There’s a point as a parent where the kids start beating you in the things you used to excel at like video games and Ping-Pong,” he says. “There’s a lot of trash-talking. I have to remind Cameron who is paying the rent.”

Despite his schedule, Holt tries to make family time a priority. Last year on Stefan’s birthday, he called home from an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. “Stefan said, ‘It’s so cool we’re both watching the Super Bowl together, but you’re in Kuwait and I’m with my buds [in Manhattan],'” recalls Carol. “It was a cool moment.”

“The thing is, it’s not like Dad disappears every day,” says Iron Pants. “They know where I am.” Probably in a chair, somewhere.

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