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There's a New Geraldo...Sort of : Rivera' still a TV outlaw, but he's moving into new corporate, personal and professional worlds

March 05, 1989|DENNIS McDOUGAL

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.

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