HE IS GRAYING AT THE TEMPLES now, and despite the trademark bushy mustache, he looks rather serious, having added studious horn-rimmed glasses to his wardrobe. But it will always be hard to take the Geraldo out of Geraldo Rivera. Within minutes of meeting him, he may invite you to go sailing for the weekend on Voyager, his beloved 70-foot boat that he keeps down in St. Martin, West Indies. In no time at all he blurts out some personal details perhaps better left unblurted (see below). And look, there he goes naked!—flashing his toned butt on a dash to his outdoor hot tub after an invigorating workout with weights and a punching bag at his New Jersey home. Spending an entire day with Rivera is, in fact, a little like living through an episode of "Talk Show Hosts Who Simply Cannot Restrain Themselves."

At 53, Rivera has reached the prime of a lifetime crammed full of remarkable journalistic highs and embarrassing lows, and he is on the cusp of a personal and professional respectability he has long craved. While it will never be confused with 60 Minutes, after 10 years on the air, his syndicated daytime talkfest The Geraldo Rivera Show is living proof that he is staying true to his 1996 pledge to abandon what he now calls the "My sister is a teen slut and I want to be one too" genre. Though the show still traffics mainly in tabloid staples like "Amy Fisher: Face to Face" or girl gangs, he tries to inject a socially responsible message into each episode. And his three-year-old nightly CNBC program Rivera Live, mainly about legal issues, became the show of record for the O.J. Simpson trial and a required stopover for such key players as Denise Brown, Mark Fuhrman, Christopher Darden and Kato Kaelin. By the end of last year, Rivera Live started beating its main cable competition, Larry King Live, among viewers aged 25 to 54, and last month, on the night of the Simpson civil verdict, nearly 2 million households tuned in to watch a hastily improvised two-hour Rivera Live that busted all the prime-time records in CNBC's history. "He's a unique person in American journalism," says Harvard law professor and former Simpson defense attorney Alan Dershowitz, a frequent guest on the show. "The one thing most major TV people don't do is take chances, and Geraldo does. He puts his biases right out on the table, and he gives you a chance to respond."

Try as he might, though, Rivera cannot seem to shake off the whiff of the circus. Though he has won awards for such groundbreaking investigative reports as his 1972 expose of the degrading conditions children lived in at Willowbrook (a Staten Island, N.Y., mental hospital) and has interviewed celebrities and world leaders ranging from Fidel Castro to Jimmy Carter to John Lennon, it is the high-profile debacles that dog him. There was the time in 1986 when, after a relentless carny-barker buildup on live national TV, he blasted through the walls of Al Capone's vault, only to find...nothing much at all. There was the time during a 1988 taping of Geraldo when his nose met a flying chair after a brawl erupted between Roy Innis, the chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, and a gaggle of neo-Nazis—all of whom Rivera knew to be raring for a fight. And Rivera was always willing to find creative ways to liven things up. In 1992, in front of a studio audience, he submitted to a facelift in which fat from his rear end filled in wrinkles on his face. For every award-winning "Littlest Junkie" report there was a "Devil Worship" special, provoking more mockery from the critics—and more phenomenal ratings. Rivera himself says proudly that "I have had more street fights than anybody I think in the history of the world, probably. I've also cried more on-camera."

These days, Rivera and his fourth wife, C.C. Dyer, 40, live with their two daughters Isabella, 4, and Simone, 2, on a 10-acre estate overlooking the banks of the Navesink River in genteel Monmouth County. He commutes to work in Manhattan by helicopter or by motorboat if the weather permits. But this hard-core city boy loves the suburban jungle, and it is easy to see why: His beautiful spread includes a 13-room house, a swimming pool, tennis court and paddle-tennis court and a four-bedroom guesthouse full of nautical art. Rivera, who makes no apologies for his clear O.J.-is-guilty stance and doesn't mind socializing with some of the case's key players, had many of the Simpson cast, including Fuhrman and Kaelin, to stay here. (Rivera reports that Kato's first words upon arrival were, "Do you have cable?") But though he is now part of a three-Jaguar family, Rivera still considers himself antiestablishment. "In my mind's eye I want to be lord of the manor," he admits, "but the manor is open to the people, to everyone."

That is because he is determined to remain true to his roots. Rivera grew up in New York City and on Long Island, the half-Puerto Rican, half-Jewish son of Cruz Rivera and Lilly Friedman, both cafeteria workers, and he refers to himself as "brown," and "very color sensitive." He denies rumors that he ever tried to fudge his ethnicity by using the name Jerry Rivers, and he is teaching his daughters Spanish.

His roots are also in the law. Before he was a crusading journalist, he was a crusading public-interest lawyer with a degree from Brooklyn Law School. In 1970, while he was acting as a spokesman on behalf of a Puerto Rican activist group, the Young Lords, who had taken over a church, someone at ABC local news decided the then-26-year-old Rivera was great on-camera and offered him a spot. Rivera never looked back. In the 1970s, while working for ABC's entertainment and news divisions, Rivera became one of the highest paid TV journalists. In 1978 he joined the fledgling 20/20 but left in 1985 after a dispute with Roone Arledge, then head of the news division. (Arledge, he claimed, wanted to spike another journalist's report about the Kennedys and Marilyn Monroe.)

After the personal low of losing his job at ABC, he embarked on his years of Al Capone and Satanism, of the flamboyant Geraldo watched by the masses and reviled by the critics. But all of that is in the past. "I get tired of being a punch line for late-night comedies," he says as he relaxes in sneakers and sweats one recent morning at home. "I get tired of having any kind of moral ambiguity about myself." Now, Rivera insists, "I have gone straight—as straight as I can be." Ironically he has Simpson, and CNBC, to thank for that. I "Professionally, the CNBC show reminded me that I was an attorney, an analytical person and an educated person," Rivera says. "I've rehoned this tremendous asset."

He has also, he swears, after four marriages and three divorces, cleaned up his act personally. For Rivera this is no small matter. According to his 1991 autobiography, the aptly named Exposing Myself—a book he now refers to as "the colossal error of my adult life"—his life up until about 10 years ago was one long string of romance and debauchery and adventure. His policy, he wrote, was to keep "one steady and one on the side," having flings, flirtations or affairs with—he claimed—the likes of Bette Midler, Liza Minnelli and Marian Javits, wife of late New York Sen. Jacob Javits, as well as nameless, and countless, production assistants, Studio 54 habitués, and groupies.

That might explain why his first three marriages crumbled. His first wife was Linda Coblentz, whom he met at the University of Arizona; No. 2 was the artist Edith Vonnegut, daughter of novelist Kurt; the third was producer Sheri, with whom he has a son, Gabriel, who is now 17 and living in Brentwood, Calif., with his mother.

In 1980, while still married to Sheri, he fell in love with Dyer, whom he had met two years earlier when she came to work for him as an executive assistant at ABC and who is now the publisher of the Two River Times, a local weekly newspaper that Rivera owns. Rivera says he was attracted to her "vivaciousness and her life force," and to the fact that they share so many interests in common, like sailing and sports and a love of animals. For her part, Dyer, the daughter of a Marion, Mass., executive, says that she fell for Rivera's fiery nature. "I grew up in a very WASPy world, where men don't share their passion. Then I met Geraldo. There's never a dull moment."

Especially in the beginning. The Dyer-Rivera union almost did not come off. In 1987, while the couple were engaged, Rivera had yet another premarital fling. As he shows a visitor through his house, he points proudly to a picture of his son Cruz, 9—a child he neglected to mention in his book. He also neglected to mention Cruz's mother to C.C., who learned of the affair, and the pregnancy, when the woman called her. "I was in denial," Dyer says, laughing just a little. "I'm still in denial." C.C. broke off the relationship and only consented to reconcile after Rivera came begging and swearing eternal monogamy. "He just has this way about him," she says. They will celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary this July. Although she loves Cruz, who joins the family for many holidays and summer vacations, it was difficult for her to accept him at first. "The worst thing was, I was infertile," she explains. "It was a hard time, having this little kid around and not being able to have any of my own." After several difficult operations, C.C. conceived.

Cruz lives with his mother in Texas, and Rivera is supporting him financially. The child has also become a part of the far-flung Rivera family. "Bringing together my kids now is a lot of fun," Rivera says. "To see them all, so diverse and so different.... It's so beautiful." Maybe so, but after revealing Cruz's existence to a reporter, he develops second thoughts. And after a drink or two at the end of a long hard workday, the old street brawler in Rivera emerges. "If you make this story about Geraldo Rivera's illegitimate child," he threatens nastily before an audience of about a dozen CNBC staffers and friends, "I'm going to take it to the National Enquirer first."

Nevertheless, a generally kinder, gentler Rivera has settled into his part of father and family man. "I'm a flirt but I'm not a fool," he says. The fear of getting caught is a great motivator. "I play to an audience of one. If C.C. were ever to hear that I had betrayed her, she would just say goodbye, and she's too valuable." Seeing him at home, surrounded by children and dogs and birds—the Riveras have four parakeets named Oprah, Sally, Maury and Montel—it sure looks as if he has settled quite nicely into that "lord of the manor" thing. "He's in a very good place in his life right now," says one of Rivera's oldest friends, Cheech Marin, late of Cheech and Chong. "Things are all coming true for him now."

Now that the Simpson trial has ended—to his great relief, he says—Rivera is looking for the next big story, which for him may be the JonBenét Ramsey case. He is also girding up for a round of contract negotiations for both his shows, and he wants it to be known that his special talents may be up for grabs, especially by the likes of Rupert Murdoch and his Fox network. "I demand respect at this stage of my career," he says with supreme confidence, before his daughters race into the living room clamoring for attention. "What I want," says Geraldo Rivera, "is to be one of the wise men of my generation."