Craig Melvin Talks Dad's Alcoholism, Gambling Addiction - and How Close He Came to Same Dark Path
The Today show anchor’s father, Lawrence Melvin, spoke exclusively to PEOPLE about his son’s new memoir about growing up with a dad who only got sober at age 67
When Today's Craig Melvin was growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, family and friends always knew he would someday be something of a star.
"When he was young, he talked a lot, but he had something to say," the NBC newsman's father, Lawrence Melvin, tells PEOPLE exclusively in an interview for this week's new issue. "There was a lady at church who said Craig was going to be a minister, or find some other way of running his mouth. He did not end up being a minister, so he did the next best thing, I guess."
Lawrence, 70, has himself a little chuckle over that. But the truth is that both father and son have had little to laugh about from the old days, which were steeped in Lawrence's alcoholism and gambling addiction - the subject of Craig's raw new memoir, Pops, out this week.
"I had a lousy dad," Craig writes in the book's opening pages.
For Lawrence, seeing in print how his addiction to beer (and also cigarettes and gambling) affected his son brought relief. "Alcoholics think you're never hurting anybody but yourself, but it's not true," the retired postal worker and Air Force veteran tells PEOPLE. "The book is just like airing dirty laundry out - in a good way. It's a big relief for me and giving us a chance to get closer."
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In a separate interview over Zoom, Craig - now 42 and a father himself to Delano, 7, and Sybil, 4, with wife Lindsay Czarniak, 43 - describes his father's recent visit to their home in Connecticut, where he shot hoops, played and read with his grandchildren for hours.
"He's so happy and engaged that I'm thinking, 'Who is this guy?'" marvels Craig, the Today news anchor who also co-hosts the morning show's third hour, anchors the daily show Craig Melvin Reports on MSNBC, and is a host of Dateline. "[My father's] alcoholism robbed me of childhood memories. There were so many times where I wish my father had been there for a recital or a little league game or an oratorical contest, and he was passed out or he was at the video poker machines or he was working."
In Craig's first semester at Wofford College, the family history of addiction (his two grandfathers were also alcoholics) came close to pulling him down that path. Disgusted by Lawrence's drinking, Craig had always steered clear of alcohol. "Then I get to college, and it's like, whoa!" he says. He did more drinking than studying, landing on academic probation before he learned, he says, to "rein it in."
Then, in 2001, two weeks after graduation, Craig started his first real job in news - at WIS-TV, the NBC affiliate in Columbia. Making what he called "decent money," Craig was soon enough gambling. "It started with casual Sunday betting on NFL games with a bookie," Craig says. "I was doing really well for a while, and then it's like, 'I owe you that much?' That's a problem."
Lawrence bailed him out with a loan - and, never much of a sermonizer, a simple warning. "He said, 'You got to cut that out,' " Craig recalls. Around the same time, Craig started therapy to help manage what he calls the "simmering anger and resentment" at his father that was starting to spill over into other relationships. "I thought he was weak and lazy. I didn't understand that he was sick," Craig says.
Still in therapy today - "It's now about how can I be a better husband, a better father" - Craig says he does worry about the genetic predisposition to addiction. But he enjoys an occasional bourbon and, with Lindsay, a Fox Sports reporter, has made a few getaways to the blackjack tables of Las Vegas. "I think there's value in demonstrating for my children that you can engage in things in moderation and not have them destroy your life," he says.
In 2018, Lawrence started getting blackout drunk and sideswiped a car in a Wendy's parking lot. "Our greatest fear was that he was going to get drunk and kill someone with his car," says Craig. The family staged an intervention, and Lawrence checked into the Willingway Hospital addiction treatment center in Georgia. He's been sober ever since, still living in Columbia, and six months ago quit cigarettes cold turkey. Next year, he and wife Betty Jo will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.
His struggles now are with a bit of depression - and guilt.
"You never really get over kicking yourself. But I try not to live in the past, because it's gone," says Lawrence. "Craig and I are in the process of making peace, and my thing now is to do better for my grandkids. It feels good. I'm 70, but I feel like I'm 35."
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