It’s 6:30 p.m. on Santa Monica Boulevard and some clown in a yellow Porsche has just cut off the most famous Puerto Rican Jew in America.
Geraldo Rivera cursed mildly. He hit the brakes and swerved his rented Lincoln.
There was a time not long ago when he admits he might have chased the Porsche down, jumped out and confronted the driver. But this evening, he avoids confrontation. Strange, considering his now-famous program that ended up with a neo-Nazi brawl and Rivera sporting a broken nose from a thrown chair.
After the close call with the Porsche, he turns to reassure his 10-year-old son in the back seat. “It’s all right. It’s OK,” he called over his right shoulder to Gabriel.
It’s the “new Geraldo,” according to his executive producer and long-time friend Marty Berman. He is a changed man: monogamous and moderate.
Though he still portrays himself as a romantic rebel, the crusading storefront lawyer-turned-journalist of the ‘70s sounds suspiciously like a yuppified capitalist these days. With the announcement last month that he and four partners (including Cheech Marin of Cheech & Chong comedy fame) would be buying up TV stations, Rivera discovered the wonderful world of corporate power.
The way he described it, his flight into Los Angeles three weeks ago on broadcast magnate George Gillett’s private Challenger jet was as intoxicating as Rivera’s favorite before-dinner drink, Tanqueray and tonic. If Gillett was trying to woo Rivera and his partners in the newly formed Maravilla (English translation: Marvelous) Communications to buy one of his stations, he was doing a splendid job.
“I’ll never forget, sitting in the back of George Gillett’s private jet, flying into Burbank, talking deals to Cheech (in Malibu) on the phone,” said Rivera. “It was just such a trip!”
Big bucks is nothing new to Rivera. When he was fired from ABC-TV 3 1/2 years ago at the top of his game, he was reportedly pulling about $800,000 a year. He had a pricey apartment on West 64th Street in Manhattan, a Malibu beach house, a yacht, Cadillac, Jaguar.
The only thing he didn’t have to divvy up in his 1984 divorce from Sheri Rivera, his third wife, was the Jaguar. (He still keeps the classic 1954 beauty garaged here so that he can tool around the freeways on his three or four visits a year from his New York home.)
In the past, his investment interests have been show-business garden variety: stocks, bonds, his own production companies, insurance policies and, for the sake of speculation, a few gas, oil and shopping center partnerships.
But with the success of “Geraldo,” all that has changed.
First, Rivera developed his Investigative News Group production company. In conjunction with Tribune Broadcasting, which underwrote his talk show and his hugely successful syndicated specials, ING will undertake a new weekly TV magazine later this year entitled “The Investigators.” Like his non-network talk show, “The Investigators” will not have to use union crews, a situation that substantially cuts production costs.
“Combined with the new technology, that’s going to make it very cost-effective to produce these kind of shows,” said David Hyslop, vice president of VTE Productions, a non-union video production service that contracts with ING to produce “Geraldo” when the show originates from Los Angeles.
With a $200,000-per-week budget, “The Investigators,” as Rivera envisions it, will be his own flashy version of a “20/20" program with Rivera at the anchor desk. Tribune originally planned to launch the program in January, but Rivera says he decided to hold off until the current deluge of tabloid TV programs (“Inside Edition,” “A Current Affair,” “USA Today,” etc.), “kill each other off.”
Rivera sees “The Investigators” as his return--on his own terms--to mainstream, nighttime TV. So he doesn’t want to debut in an atmosphere of anti-Rivera hysteria, he says.
The other aspect of the new, more fiscally conservative Geraldo Rivera is Miravella.
Using an infrequently invoked minority-ownership regulation instituted by the Federal Communications Commission a decade ago, five men teamed last month to begin buying their own network of TV stations--Rivera; Marin; former New York Rep. Herman Badillo; Marcellino Miyares, owner of Times Square Studios, and Tony Bonilla Sr., chairman of the National Hispanic Leadership Conference.
According to Rivera, there are currently 44 on the market and Miravella is bidding for all. He predicts flatly that the partnership will own its first station by April.
The key to their edge is an FCC ruling that gives huge capital gains tax breaks to station owners who sell their licenses to minorities.
“If everybody else goes in and offers $100 million, we can offer $95 million,” he said. The deferral granted the seller on capital gains taxes is so sweet that it will put Miravella in a terrific bargaining position, Rivera said.
Within a few years, Miravella could be in the same league as some of the other multiple-station groups, including Gillett Group Inc., which counts KSBW-TV in Salinas and KSBY-TV in San Luis Obispo among its stable of seven lucrative TV properties.
“I’m sitting there in George Gillett’s jet, making calls to bankers and my business partners and business reps,” Rivera recalled. “And I just stopped at one point and had the best belly laugh. All by myself, sitting in the back of that jet. If somebody had seen me, they would have thought I was a lunatic. A crazy man. I was just laughing out loud about how the worm has turned.”
Ten years ago, Geraldo was certainly not anywhere near the concerned parent, reflective businessman or monogamous mate that he now claims to be. Back then, the fiery crusader with the lantern jaw and lust for work and women was invincible, immortal, insatiable, insufferable.
“He was very arrogant,” said one former ABC colleague. “Bolder than appropriate in dealing with people. Geraldo was always somebody who crossed the line--a bad boy who tended toward sensationalism and sacrificed accuracy. He never would have become an anchor at ABC, so it was probably a blessing for him that he was fired.”
There’s still plenty of the old Geraldo: the one who grows edgy when he’s prepping for a show; who poses indiscriminately for publicity shots and rarely declines autograph requests; who speaks blithely of himself as a pioneering broadcast newsman on a par with Edward R. Murrow.
“I truly believe--and it sounds so arrogant that I hesitate to tell you--but I really believe that there will be a retrospective look at my career when I’m no longer a threat, when I’m no longer a player on the front stage,” he said. “I really think when you get away from the people who are analyzing or reviewing what I’ve done now, I think you’ll see a real reassessment of the journalism of Geraldo Rivera.”
But there is a genuine once-burned, twice-shy deference in the new Geraldo too. Ten years ago, the ex-gang member (“The Corner Boys and, after I got my driver license, the Valve Grinders . . . our graphic was a valve with wings on it . . . ,” he recalls), was still working on his angry-young-man television image. At 35, he could swagger without ever leaving his chair.
Off camera, when the whim hit him, he worked on his third marriage. But he never outgrew his reputation as a globe-trotting, macho, party-till-you-puke Lothario. Like the first two marriages--to a pre-TV sweetheart and, later on, to the daughter of author Kurt Vonnegut--his third trip to the altar (to his ABC-TV producer, Sheri Raymond) ended in divorce in 1984.
He remarried in 1987, again to one of his producers: C. C. Dyer.
“This is the first time I’ve worn a wedding ring,” he said proudly. “Monogamy feels good.”
In the past, he made similar statements about Sheri Rivera.
But the changes are profound, subtle and real this time, Rivera swears. He learned his lesson well when his third marriage collapsed and he was fired from ABC.
On another day, Rivera is in front of a studio audience at Universal Studios, discussing transsexuality for the next taping of “Geraldo.” The episode will air in Los Angeles at 4 p.m., just as school is getting out. If Rivera sees any ambiguity between his protective paternal role off camera and his titilating showmanship on camera, he doesn’t show it. As his current wife and producer, C.C. Dyer puts it: “Kids have seen everything and heard even more at school. This doesn’t shock them.” And Rivera, listening to her comments, doesn’t dispute her conclusions.
Last week, for instance, KCBS-TV, Channel 2, promoted the “Geraldo” lineup this way:
Monday: “Wanted: Elvis! Dead or Alive.”
Tuesday: “Drag Queens on Parade.”
Wednesday: “Exploring Satan’s Black Market.”
Thursday: “Sexual Secrets . . . To Tell or Not to Tell.”
Friday: “Teen Lesbians and Their Moms.”
“Who are your influential critics really, though?” Rivera asks. “You have to distinguish between influence within the industry and influence with the viewers. Critics are really not influential at all. TV is not like Broadway where everybody rushes out to see what the reviews are. That must be so frustrating for a critic. They have no power to influence the people watching. If anything, they just keep my name in the news.”
During his 20 years in television, he has polarized his colleagues and audience alike. It’s tough to find a TV critic anywhere who has much nice to say about Rivera:
“You know sensationalism is back in style. . . . when Geraldo Rivera is riding high"--Richard Zoglin, Time Magazine.
“The trend grows and so does the stench"--Phil Kloer, Cox News Service.
“His narcissism overwhelms his news sense . . ."--Charles Leerhsen, Newsweek.
“Geraldo Rivera should be arrested for exposing himself"--Reuven Frank, former NBC News president.
“There’s no subject . . . that Rivera can’t trivialize with his tactics."--Howard Rosenberg, the Los Angeles Times.
Rivera says he cares what critics say about him, but not much.
The year before he became a father, Geraldo was still light years away from that realization. In a 1978 Playboy interview, he spoke about how he had changed since he first entered television journalism in 1970:
“I was definitely arrogant and pushy, but I was other things too . . . arrogance is definitely part of my life. My defense against criticism has always been arrogance. I would always answer my critics by saying: ‘What do you know? When was the last time you were in the streets? What have you lived through? What have you seen?’ ”
Rivera himself was about to live through the disintegration of his marriage, his career as an ABC News star and fatherhood.
Gabriel Miguel Rivera was born in July, 1979. In the divorce settlement that followed five years later, he became the pawn in an expensive California court battle. Eventually, Geraldo agreed to pay ex-wife Sheri $25,000 a month in spousal and child support. As of last July, at the height of Rivera’s renaissance as the nation’s most reviled and/or respected video talk show host, the monthly support payment dropped to $21,500.
But Rivera--the middle-class, middle child of a Puerto Rican father and Jewish mother, born 46 years ago come this July--has few regrets.
On his left shoulder, he wears a tattoo with his fourth wife’s initials surrounded by a pattern of intertwining lines. Except for the initials, which are recent additions, the tattoo dates back to his days as a merchant marine in the early ‘60s.
At the joint between thumb and index finger of his right hand, he has a second tattoo.
“It was self-inflicted at a very early age--a sort of a gang I.D. like the pachuco cross,” he said. “But I just didn’t think it was appropriate to have a cross there so I elaborated and darkened it in to make the Jewish star.”
As far back as 1973, Rivera has had to battle the myth that his real name is Gerry Rivers and that his Long Island upbringing was one of privilege, not poverty.
“Well, the Gerry part is right,” he said. “I’m sure that Peter Jennings was Pete when he was young too. But the Rivers part is bogus. It’s just such a good story that it feeds on itself. It’s one of those great rumors and my detractors think it’s wonderful because they can say: ‘Aha! That’s the reason he’s gone so far! ‘Cause he pulled a scam! He rode the minority thing!’
“It’s an easy way to minimize me or explain me away. I mean, I went so far as to put my dad on TV. I showed my passport on TV.It just got so frustrating.”
His father, Cruz Rivera, died a year ago on Thanksgiving. Geraldo speaks of him wistfully and with genuine reverence. Like his son, the elder Rivera lost his job after more than 15 years with his company. When he was fired as a kitchen supervisor in a Long Island airplane factory, he bought a diner that later went bankrupt.
“I cooked for him on the night shift while I went to law school,” Geraldo recalled. “My father never earned more than $200 a week.”
From his syndicated show, his specials, his four books and all of his other investments, Rivera earns well over $1 million a year.
His youngest brother, Craig, is following in Geraldo’s footsteps with his own sensational reporting on the new syndicated nightly news magazine, “Inside Edition.” The remaining members of the Rivera family have done moderately well.
His older sister is a parochial school principal.
His older brother is a shop steward in the Steamfitter’s Union.
What set Geraldo apart from them was a lot of blind luck.
“I believe that life is a series of random chances and what you make of your life is what you make of those chances,” he said.
He worked his way through college at the University of Arizona selling men’s clothes and going to sea from time to time with the merchant marine. After graduation in 1965, he returned to New York and went to the Brooklyn College of Law and later passed the bar.
By then, Gerry had metamorphosed into Geraldo: spokesman for a group of New York City Latino activists calling themselves the Young Lords. During one well-covered demonstration, Rivera became such a frequent presence on the nightly news that WABC-TV hired him to fill a temporary on-camera reporting slot to satisfy federal minority-hiring quotas.
From that point, Rivera began seizing the random chances and making them work for him: “ABC World News Tonight,” “Good Night, America,” “Good Morning, America,” “20/20.”
Even at his nadir, when he lost his job at ABC, he never lost the common, maudlin touch of playing out random chances to his own best advantage. In an often sappy but introspective article written for Esquire in 1985, Rivera announced that he and C. C. would take off on an Atlantic-to-Pacific cruise aboard Rivera’s yacht and try to find a way out of a mid-life crisis he was going through.
Four years later, he’s thinking about owning a string of TV stations. When asked if he successfully found the way out of his mid-life crisis, he answers with his own question.
“What do you think?” he asks.
Rivera--even the new one--makes no apologies for shameless self-promotion. His afternoon talk show is a different brand of journalism from that which he practiced on prime time for ABC. It’s a different kind of audience too: The unemployed, housewives, youngsters. They are “the people,” Rivera says.
The ones who stop him on the street in his native New York and cheer him on:
“Go get ‘em, Geraldo!”
“I’ll never be accepted by any kind of in-crowd,” Rivera said. “This is my frustration. I can cover a war as good as anybody. I’ve demonstrated that. I can cover any kind of breaking-news situation as good as anybody.
“But there’s this snobbery that refuses to face the reality of that fact. I can do investigative reporting as good as anybody who’s out there right now.”
Nobody is ever neutral about him and he knows it. He thrives on it. He plays to it. But there are thin spots in his thick skin. The “mean-spirited” shots he has taken from as varied a lineup of critics as The Times’ Rosenberg to “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau genuinely hurt at times.
“People want to be accepted by their peers,” he says. “Even a rebel wants secretly to be accepted.”
Yet Rivera’s assertion that he “picks up where Oprah and Donahue leave off” consistently proves to be all too tastelessly true in the view of most TV critics.
Radio blurbs invite listeners to tune in while Rivera talks with women who dress their husbands up in panties, teddys and lace. Rarely does a week go by without mud wrestlers, prostitutes, pimps, serial killers or some other sensational social misfit making an appearance on his TV show.
“I’d like acceptance,” he says, smiling without showing any teeth. “But I’ve come to the realization that it will never happen to me.”