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Vieira: Leaves 'Today' for family reasons

In a way, Meredith Vieira's departure was foretold - by a Newsday columnist. Head below  for more on that, but here's the point: As good as she was for "Today," "Today" wasn't good enough for Vieira, who has left shows - like "60 Minutes" - over family issues/personal reasons before. Good for her - family trumps ego and huge paycheck.

How many times can you say that in this business.

Here's what Meredith said a little while ago at a press conference, and then, on to the column that predicted this five years ago...

"I love it here, but had personal issues that were weighing on me and felt I need to examine them closely and make a decision based on them. But have said that, I went back and forht and back and forth...I drove people crazy, but at the end of the day, it was up to the last minute t hat I realized I had to go with my gut and know it is the right thing. The [departure] date is June 8, and my daughter graduates June 9, son June 12, and I hope to take a family vacation. So it felt right. "also, there was so much speculation about poor Meredith and her invalid husband. He's in good health and that's part of the reason I wanted to leave right now. I appreciate what that means...and want to be w ith him and apreciate our time together and not have to punch a clock so much...those articles [about leaving over his health] dimished him and diminished me, so I wanted to set the record straight on that."

OK, now what about Newsday columnist. Oh right, this guy...

 

ALL EDITIONS OFF CAMERA: COVER STORY; Home is where her heart is; Meredith Vieira joins the 'Today' family, but her husband and kids matter most BYLINE: Verne Gay SECTION: PART II; Pg. B04 LENGTH: 792 words

 

I ran into Meredith Vieira a couple of months ago, or rather - to be precise - walked up to the table where she sat in the dining hall of a remote lodge in upstate New York. We've known each other (slightly) over the years, so a pleasant little chat ensued, followed by our goodbyes and that was that.

But the encounter actually held a small surprise for me. Not that she was slumming it up in the North Woods instead of rehearsing or promoting or doing any of those other tedious chores that major TV personalities endure on the eve of hugely important job changes.

Rather, she seemed perfectly blissful, as if her daughter, Lily - also at her table, and visiting from camp - was the only person in the whole wide world who mattered at that moment. Didn't Meredith know (I resisted asking)? She was the new co-anchor of "Today." There's work to be done.

You hear this so often about Vieira, 52 - we all have, and usually from Vieira herself - that it is has become part of her legend. Family is job one. Husband Richard Cohen, 57, and kids Ben, 17, Gabe, 15, and Lily, 13, are her reasons for being. Gigs such as "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "The View"? The pay's good. Hours are short. They're fun. They facilitate a lifestyle. Best of all, they're only jobs. (Total transparency: another one of those distinct Vieira charms.)

That's why a terribly happy, comfortable existence shifted ever so perceptibly under Vieira's feet this morning. She had one family when she got out of bed, but starting at 7 a.m., she'll have a brand-new one - Matt Lauer, Al Roker, Ann Curry and Natalie Morales.

As such, the advent of Meredith Vieira on "Today" comes with this intriguing and for the moment unanswerable question: Will she ultimately be happy with both? T

To call Vieira - tied to a $40-million, four-year contract - a reluctant recruit to the "Today" grind would be a slight overstatement. To call her an anguished recruit is on the money.

Before accepting this job, she was not only Hamlet-like but Ophelia-like in her private deliberations. Friends and family speak of sleepless nights, tortured walks, even weeping. "I spent a lot of time in the fetal position, crying," she said in a profile in the September issue of Good Housekeeping. (She declined comment for this column because her schedule is jam-packed, according to a show publicist.)

Vieira didn't even begin work until now because she wanted to get the kids ready for school last week, according to her agent, Michael Glantz. Let us be perfectly clear. "Today" hosts from Jane Pauley to Matt Lauer have balanced work and family, and, if pressed, each will readily admit which family comes first. Vieira, though, doesn't need to be pressed, and never has.

She dumped "60 Minutes" when it declined to loosen up her travel schedule. She took on both "Millionaire" and "View" for the money - her husband suffers from multiple sclerosis. As a younger woman, she had trouble conceiving, and as anybody who ever endured that well knows, a family can be the greatest of all blessings. In a phone conversation earlier this week, her husband, an author and a longtime TV news producer, had this to say: "Meredith is always reluctant. She does not like change.

She always wonders if she's going to be up to the job, and I think in a funny way, that's fuel for her because, look, self-doubt is healthy. I'm tired of television people whose arrogance outstrips their abilities and Meredith is without arrogance. Any performer on Broadway will say that nervousness and apprehension can be good energy. It can send you higher into orbit. With Meredith, it's all genuine.

She has to take this journey in her head before she can do the job." Where this journey ends up this morning is a studio at 30 Rock that underwent a major face-lift over the summer in preparation for high-def broadcasts and a new host. Vieira joins a show that is not only an institution, but a magnificent and maddening machine that we readily curse when it does something stupid, and readily admire when it does something smart.

This is the most intimate of America's great shows because it reaches us at the most infuriatingly intimate moment of our day. That's where Vieira comes in. In her years at "The View," she made a pop art of intimacy because she was so completely artless at it. She could talk about everything from origami to orgasms without fear or consequence because this - after all - was only "The View."

But now she steps in the white-hot light of "Today." Will she wilt in the glare? Will the phony artifice of the "'Today' Family" become more than she can endure? Her husband has some answers: "She will do a job from which she will return to her family every day. It doesn't have to be any more complicated than that."

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