Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Geraldo's Last Laugh

In 1970, the telegenic attorney was spotted by the news director of WABC, who offered him a job as a reporter, but not before suggesting that Gerald change his name to Geraldo to exploit his Hispanic roots. From the start, he had difficulty balancing journalistic notions of objectivity with his personal passion. In 1972, he was suspended from the station for his vocal support of George McGovern's presidential candidacy. In a subsequent effort to embarrass Rivera, a conservative radio-show host put out the false story that Rivera's surname was actually Rivers, painting him as an ethnic opportunist.

Ironically, Rivera says he met with real discrimination at WABC, an experience that still colors his perception of how the mostly white, square-jawed media Establishment views him. "Nobody wanted to work with this Puerto Rican kid who they had sent to journalism school," says Berman, then a film editor at the station. Yet Rivera's identity, says Danny Schecter, who worked with him as a producer at 20/20, "also put him in the role of ethnic hero, which he couldn't comfortably fill, either, because he wasn't really from the barrio."

Rivera made his reputation in 1972 with a blockbuster report on the appalling conditions inside the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island, then the nation's largest facility for the mentally retarded, which was eventually closed by the state of New York as a result of his report. "Willowbrook is one of the things, along with some others he's not so proud of, that will be on his tombstone," says Berman.

The Willowbrook publicity made Rivera an instant celebrity in New York, and the charismatic cub reporter briefly flirted with the notion of running for Congress from the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, district where he was born. "There were serious meetings with politicos," says Berman. "He thought he would carry the Jewish vote and the Puerto Rican vote, which is a majority in New York City." But Jerry Shargel says "the glamour and money" of a television career proved a stronger pull. By day, Rivera was reporting on migrant workers in New Jersey, child heroin addicts in East Harlem, and the Yom Kippur war. By night, he was partying at Studio 54 with Andy Warhol, Rudolph Nureyev, and Mick Jagger. The Avenue C townhouse that he shared with the second of his four wives, Kurt Vonnegut's daughter Edie, became "the site of unsurpassed parties," as Shargel delicately puts it.

After stints as a correspondent for Good Morning America and the ABC Evening News, Rivera worked for eight years at 20/20, where he exposed the harms of Agent Orange and domestic dioxin, traveled behind the lines in Laos with anti-Vietnamese rebels, traced the trafficking of heroin from the Afghan border to the streets of New York, and, in 1983, did the first network treatment of the aids crisis.

Then, in 1985, Rivera publicly slammed the decision of ABC News president Roone Arledge -- his longtime friend and mentor -- to kill another reporter's story linking JFK to Marilyn Monroe. Amid the turmoil, Rivera's associate producer and then girlfriend, C. C. Dyer, was caught using an ABC messenger to score marijuana for a friend. Both Geraldo and C.C. wound up leaving the network. Eighteen months later, Geraldo married C.C., who now works as a publisher of The Two River Times, a Rivera-owned weekly crusading newspaper in Redbank, New Jersey. "It's still an open wound," Rivera says of that period. "Roone and I saw each other at Fred Friendly's funeral recently. It scars both our professional records. For him, it was a unique misstep in an otherwise flawless career. For me it was suicidal, self-destructive." But as Barbara Walters points out, the setback didn't deter Rivera. "We all thought it was very unfortunate when he left. He was exiled and unhappy, but he made a lot of money," she says. "And he ended up with a career that is much larger than if he had stayed as a 20/20 correspondent."

Financially strapped after being fired from 20/20 ("He went broke after each of his three divorces," says one friend), Rivera grabbed the first lucrative offer that came his way: hosting the live excavation of the private vault of Depression-era mobster Al Capone. The vault was empty, leaving Rivera humiliated, but the show won the highest ratings ever for a syndicated special. Soon, he was hosting two shows of his own, the daytime Geraldo show and the syndicated news program Now It Can Be Told. Both were ratings magnets roundly trashed by critics.

Rivera is the first to admit that as tabloid television went down-market, he descended further, hosting a show from a nudist colony, mud-wrestling a woman, having fat from his ass implanted into his forehead. But even then he continued to do some excellent journalism -- such as airing the first report on the dangers of silicone breast implants. Even the notorious Geraldo episode in which skinheads smashed a chair into Rivera's face and broke his nose was actually intended as a serious look at hate groups in America.