And Roker’s work doesn’t stop when he leaves the Today set, having translated his name into a successful entertainment brand. During one of his regular breaks in the broadcast, Roker heads up the four flights of stairs to his office to talk shop. While he mixes a strawberry smoothie, a visitor remarks on the relaxing aroma that fills the room. “It’s smelling salts,” he explains. “Epsom salt and Himalayan sea salt, eucalyptus and lavender. I made it myself.”
If that’s an indication of Roker’s fully embraced feminine side — on Today, he once eyed an array of men competing in Cosmopolitan magazine’s search for the country’s most eligible bachelors and proclaimed: “It’s like a Whitman’s Sampler of man candy!” — his latest successes are coming from a much more masculine place. Bordertown: Laredo, which was produced by his Al Roker Entertainment (ARE) company and airs on A&E, tracks a police narcotics squad as they intercept drugs coming across the border from Mexico. Another ARE offering, the Weather Channel’s Coast Guard Alaska, follows rescue swimmers based in Kodiak, Alaska. (“You know the guys in ‘Deadliest Catch’? When they go down, these are the guys that go out to save them,” he says.) And in April, Roker debuts Big Easy Justice — a show about a New Orleans bounty hunter that he co-produced with Jennifer Lopez’s Nuyorican Productions — which will air on Spike TV.
He mixes up his production duties (his company has produced more than 60 shows) with voice work (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa), hosting gigs (game shows, news reports and holiday specials) and writing (he’s penned cookbooks, a series of murder mysteries and a memoir entitled Don’t Make Me Stop This Car). Where does he find the time for it all? For starters, he swears he needs only five hours’ sleep a night. But he’s also incredibly driven.
“If you look up indefatigable in the dictionary, there must be a picture of Al,” says former co-host Katie Couric. “He has never rested on his laurels.”
His tireless work ethic may be a result, in part, of his humble beginnings. Growing up a chubby, bookish kid in St. Albans, Queens, the idea that he could co-host the nation’s most popular morning show, host his own cable program and run a production company seemed like a far-off fantasy. His Bahamian father, Albert Sr., a New York City bus driver, and his Jamaican mother, Isabel, worked hard to make sure their eldest son and his five younger siblings were provided for. After graduating from a Jesuit high school, Roker thought he was headed for a career as an animator. But while taking meteorology courses at the State University of New York at Oswego, he landed a job as the weatherman at the CBS affiliate in Syracuse. It was 1975, when television opportunities were just becoming available to African-Americans, though Roker says he wasn’t aiming to break any color barriers. “I had no plan at all,” he says. “I just fell into it.”
Roker’s newfound career eventually took him from Syracuse to Washington, D.C., to Cleveland, and then, just eight years after he finished school, back to New York for a job at the local NBC affiliate. He began filling in for legendary Today weatherman Willard Scott in 1990 and took over the post permanently in 1996. He had been developing a television personality all along, hosting a talk show on MSNBC called Remember This? And his popular Late Show elevator races with David Letterman in the GE building won him a late-night following that extended to the early-morning hours.
But his successes masked deep feelings of inadequacy that he managed, for years, by eating. And as his star rose, so did his weight.
“It was like a gray whale — just open up and throw the plankton down the gullet,” he remembers. “If I felt bad, I would eat. If I felt good, ‘Hey, let’s eat.’ ” His size helped boost his lovable on-air persona, but he says he felt so bad about being so big that he just ate more.
It was his father’s death that finally brought things to a head. “My dad had been sick for a long time,” Roker recalls. “And in the final few weeks of his life … the one thing he was worried about was his son’s health.” Several weeks later, Roker was covering the Winter Olympics for NBC in Salt Lake City. He’d hit 320 pounds and was wearing a size 60 — and even that was getting tight. “I looked in the closet, and nothing fit,” he says. “Size 62 was just not an option.” Finally, he made the decision he’d been considering for some time: to undergo bariatric bypass surgery.