'Today' host Craig Melvin discusses how 'The Cosby Show' modeled an ideal Black family amid estrangement with father

NBC News's Craig Melvin opens up about his complicated relationship with his father in the new book
NBC News's Craig Melvin opens up about his complicated relationship with his father in the new book "Pops." (Photo: Getty Images)

Craig Melvin has covered many challenging stories in his career, but Bill Cosby's downfall is one he calls "extraordinarily difficult."

In his new book, Pops: Learning to be a Son and a Father, the 42-year-old Today show co-host candidly details his relationship with his alcoholic, absentee dad, Lawrence Melvin, and their road to reconciliation. Growing up, Craig was forced to look for role models elsewhere and he found one on The Cosby Show, calling the comedian's character a surrogate father.

"For a lot of us, it was the first time we'd seen a Black family where mom and dad were both professionals, they had a healthy relationship and they were super-parents," Craig explains to Yahoo Entertainment. "Jazz, art and social consciousness were all these things explored on this show. It was this celebration of Blackness every week. It really is hard to overstate how important that was for kids like me who lacked a father figure. But every week you could turn on the TV and it's like, 'Maybe my dad isn't what I want him to be, but wow, look at Dr. Huxtable. I could be Dr. Huxtable when I grew up.'"

In 2014, Cosby went from "America's Dad" to alleged predator with sixty women accusing him of rape, drug-facilitated sexual assault or other misconduct. He was convicted of sexual assault in 2018 and remains behind bars.

"Covering the allegations and then going to Pennsylvania to cover the actual trial, it was hard. It was hard because it was as if part of my childhood was on trial as well," Craig shares, recalling how he met his role model years prior.

"I had done one or two stories before the allegations that gave me an opportunity to interview Bill Cosby," he says. "It was a professional dream come true. I think in the book I did a decent job of trying to capture the importance of Cosby's character — it's important to make that distinction — but the role that his character played not just for me, but Black kids all over America in the late eighties and early nineties, we longed to be a Cosby kid."

In the book, Craig writes how his dad — whom his friends called "Ghost" — wasn't around for him or his brothers. Lawrence worked the graveyard shift at a postal facility, so when he wasn't working, he was either sleeping — or drinking. Craig's distant relationship with his father ultimately nudged him into the field of journalism.

"My dad was such an enigma to me for most of my life and I couldn't figure him out. I didn't really know where I stood with him for a good portion of my life," he explains. "I became a naturally inquisitive person. I became very curious about my dad and our family. I think that it helped develop an empathy that a good journalist has. I try desperately not to judge. You don't know what mountain someone's climbing that day, much less in life in general. You don't know what people are going through to get where they are. I generally give people the benefit of the doubt, whether they deserve it or not. I think that's served me well professionally."

It's served him well in his personal life, too. Craig reconnected with his father once Lawrence finally got sober and the two are making up for lost time. Lawrence is now "PopPop" to the broadcaster's two children, Del, 7, and Sibby, 4, showing up for soccer games and family dinners.

Craig admits he's a bit "nervous" about his Today show colleagues learning more about his family history — "I'm not really an open book. I don't really spend a lot of time talking about myself" — he hopes his story can help others out there.

"Anyone who has an estranged family member or anyone who's had a loved one struggle with an addiction... it's for those folks, but it's a book for children and parents," he says. "We all have, dare I say, complicated relationships with our parents and with our children to a certain extent, especially as the children get older. For me, it was important to discover the origins of my father's complexity. As I talked to my dad and found out more about how he grew up and how he interacted with his own father or didn't interact with him more accurately, it helped me understand him exponentially more."

Pops: Learning to be a Son and a Father is available now.

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