He's Tough, Smart and Honest—Just Ask Him—but Geraldo Rivera Wants Something More: Respect
He is at work this particular afternoon recording promotional messages for his weekday show, which he is so determined to make successful that he compares the effort to "a campaign, a war." It's not the money, he says, though he admits he's earning more than the reported $750,000 he made as an ABC correspondent.
Geraldo has nearly twice the national Nielsen ratings of the season's two other new talk programs—The Wil Shriner Show and Getting In Touch—but Rivera's war is against Oprah and Phil. He has less than half their markets and ratings so far, but Tribune/Paramount has extended his original 13-week contract through 1988. Rivera says that in TV the only real winner is the "long-distance runner," and that's him. He contends that his show is more significant than Oprah's or Phil's because evildoers will not escape his wrath. He really does think this way, that he is a Knight Templar of the Tube, a man who would rather stop a crime than report one. Back when he was at Brooklyn Law School, says former classmate and fellow graduate Daniel Goldfarb, now a producer at 20/20, "he thought he was Errol Flynn in Captain Blood." Little has changed since. "When I jog at night in Central Park," says Rivera, "I feel like a frigate on patrol."
He sits upright in his chair, looking much younger than 44, even with the gray in his hair. As the camera comes back on, he leans toward the lens, his mouth involuntarily twists into a leer, and he proclaims, "We will give you something different from a talk show. First, we will prevent the facts..."
Sheepishly he looks around. Yes, everybody heard. By saying "prevent" instead of "present," he has conveniently summed up the enduring argument against his style of broadcasting. Says Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg: "I don't believe anything I see that he does."
Almost from his beginning in 1970 as a local news reporter, Rivera has been unable to shake unrelenting criticism that he either exaggerates or distorts the news. Years ago he punched out a colleague who spread rumors that footage of Rivera dodging bullets in the Middle East had been faked. "You'll find I'm a lot less controversial with people not in the media," says Rivera (see box). "Perhaps some critics are sincerely offended by me. Maybe there is professional jealousy involved. Maybe they are judging me by their own inner cynicism. Maybe there is a racial component."
He is half Jewish and half Puerto Rican, one of five children of Cruz Rivera and Lilly Friedman, who both worked at a 42nd Street cafeteria in Manhattan. "My mother's family was wildly against the marriage," Rivera says. "How could a Jewish girl marry a man whose first name translated as 'Cross' ?" He grew up first in a Brooklyn neighborhood where most other kids were Hispanic or Jewish, and then on Long Island, where they were predominantly Irish, Italian or black. "I remember going with an Italian girl who insisted we break up because her parents didn't want her to have 'colored' children," he says.
His religion is Jewish—"as badly as I practice it." His designated national origin is Puerto Rican, and he has heard charges, which he denies, that this was a convenient choice for an ambitious man wishing advancement through "the ethnic route."
Until he entered law school, his most noteworthy schoolboy accomplishment was being arrested. "I was caught red-handed with five new tires and rims," he says. Following high school he took remedial English and math. He was a salesman and merchant seaman before enrolling at the University of Arizona as Gerald Riviera. "My father and I had long talks about racism," he says, "how a Puerto Rican would be greeted in the West. He said that with this name I could be accepted as a vague European person." He says he never anglicized his name to Jerry Rivers, though that is yet another indictment that trails him. Rivera spends more time replying to accusations than Oliver North.
At the University of Arizona he married a woman he identifies only as Linda; he mutters vaguely that the one-year marriage "wasn't official." Wife No. 2 was artist Edith Vonnegut, daughter of novelist Kurt Vonnegut, and No. 3 was film producer Sheri Raymond, mother of his only child, Gabriel Miguel Rivera.
"I was a run-around guy," he says. "It was very difficult for me to stay married, a public person like me on the road, having an easy time socially...."
He does not mean that he went to dinner parties. He means he met girls.
"I had ecumenical tastes. The only requirement was that they be female: celebs, teachers, stewardesses."
Nice. He'd fly off on assignment, meet a friendly stewardess, invite her to join him after they arrived. "Sometimes I didn't even have to arrive."
Wife No. 4 is C.C. Dyer, 31, a producer at Rivera's production company. They lived together for four years before their marriage last July. Dyer laughs uneasily when reminded of her husband's marital history.
"He claimed never to have been in love before...." she says. Then she adds, "And I believe him."
One tangible bit of proof is the wedding band that Rivera has just begun to wear, a first for him. To his other wives he explained, "A man of action can't wear jewelry; he'll get it snagged." He now says, "I really feel married in a forever way."
Dyer and Rivera (and Gabriel, when he isn't in California with his mother) live on Manhattan's Upper East Side in a modest penthouse apartment that remains in a comfortable state of disarray. Dyer says, "I'd love America to see him as the gentle man he really is."
Conceded, Rivera is a much warmer man than he seems on TV. He cries at Lassie movies, cooks hot cereal for his son and even dresses casually—all right, too casually, the chinos expertly frayed, the jeans magnificently bleached. This does not explain why he feels compelled to interview bunnies in Hugh Hefner's pool or play the part of Bernie Goetz in a subway crime re-enactment. "He wants to support the disenfranchised," says inventor Anton Wilson, a close friend for 12 years. "He wants to see himself as a latter-day Edward R. Murrow. At the same time he knows he'll get the most attention by being a bad boy."
One of Rivera's heroes is Mike Wallace, the reporter for 60 Minutes, but Wallace is clearly uncomfortable with Rivera's idolatry. When asked about Rivera, Wallace replies, "Enough of talking about one another." Pressed further, Wallace reluctantly adds, "I think he is a very capable and intelligent fellow." End of conversation. In a reflective moment Rivera admits, "Everybody wants peer acceptance."
Nobody denies that he has done important work. He has won the George Foster Peabody Award for distinguished achievement in broadcast journalism, as well as seven local and three national Emmys. In 1972 he exposed intolerable living conditions at Willowbrook, a mental hospital on Stat-en Island. The report was as daring and resourceful as local TV gets, and Rivera still receives acclaim for it. Lest we forget, however, he will without provocation recite the famous opening lines from the show ("This is what it looked like. This is what it sounded like. But how can I tell you about the way it smelled..."). It can never be said that he lets his best work speak for itself.
After leaving WABC-TV in 1974 he worked for the entertainment division of the ABC network before joining 20/20in 1978. He remained with the program for seven years, departing in 1985 when the network declined to renew his contract following a public feud with Roone Arledge, the head of the news division. Arledge refused to air a 20/20 segment on Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedy family, and even though Rivera had nothing to do with the piece, he blasted his boss. He now says, ruefully, "I'm sorry I was in town. I was trapped [into speaking out] by my kamikaze approach to life."
In 1986, out on his own, he starred in the infamous special in which he opened the secret vaults of mobster Al Capone, found nothing but a few dusty bottles and exited singing Chicago so badly that viewers nearly forgot that the program was worse than his voice. He felt disgraced until he learned that the show was the highest-rated nationally syndicated program in television history, and then he felt pretty good. "Whatever he does," says critic Rosenberg, "lots of people like it. It must fill a need. I'm astonished. After Al Ca-pone's vault, people came back in droves." Eight months after the Capone special, he did American Vice: The Doping of a Nation, the fifth-highest-rated syndicated show in history.
Unlike most other television reporters, Rivera makes no attempt to appear intellectual, dispassionate or introspective. He cannot. He too much loves his adjectives ("the razor-slashed victim") and his self-proclaimed role as America's hero. "I exist on earth to affect reality, not just report on it," he says. Rivera's world is without subtlety, a lineup of good guys and bad guys. To his admirers this makes him vivid. To his detractors this makes him a cartoon.
Goldfarb says that if Rivera had less flair, "he'd be one of the guys on network news nobody remembers." Surely there is no danger of this. After one of his first Geraldo programs, he stood next to the exit door, bidding goodnight to his audience. Like other talk show hosts, he shook hands and exchanged warm words. Unlike other talk show hosts, he had taken off his jacket, his tie and his shirt.
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