RIVERA, GERALDO

U.S. Journalist/Talk Show Host

The name of journalist and talk show host Geraldo Rivera has become synonymous with more sensational forms of talk television. His distinctive style, at once probing, aggressive, and intimate, has even led, at times to parody by a variety of print and broadcast mediums. He has seemed to contribute to this high-profile identification by playing himself (or close approximations) in an episode of thirtysomething, a 1992 Perry Mason TV movie, and the theatrical film The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990). Yet, ironically, his fear of going too far with his public image led him to turn down an offer to play the role of an over-the-top tabloid reporter in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1994). A master of self promotion, Rivera's drive has taken his career in directions he may not have predicted. Despite having won ten Emmys and numerous journalism awards (including the Peabody), Rivera is still primarily known for the more public nature of both his personal life and his talk show.

Rivera was discovered while working as a lawyer for the New York Puerto Rican activist group the Young Lords. During the group's occupation of an East Harlem church in 1970, Rivera had been interviewed on WABC-TV local news and caught the eye of the station's news director Al Primo, who was looking for a Latino reporter to fill out his news team. In 1972, Rivera gained national attention with his critically acclaimed and highly rated special on the horrific abuse of mentally retarded patients at New York's Willowbrook School. He then went on to work for ABC national programs; first as a special correspondent for Good Morning America and then, in 1978, for the prime time investigative show 20/20. But his brashness led to controversies with the network and in 1985 he was fired after publicly criticizing ABC for canceling his report on an alleged relationship between John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.

Rivera was undaunted by his altercation with the network and moved to boost his visibility with a hour-long special on the opening of Al Capone's secret vault in April 1986. The payoff for the audience was virtually nil since the vault contained only dirt, but the show achieved the highest ratings for a syndicated special in television history. Rivera wrote in his autobiography, "My career was not over, I knew, but had just begun. And all because of a silly, high-concept stunt that failed to deliver on its titillating promise."

The same high-concept approach became the base for Rivera's talk show Geraldo, which debuted in September 1987. The first guest was Marla Hanson, a model whose face had been slashed on the orders of a jilted lover. Many critics attacked the show--and Rivera--for his theatrics and "swashbuckling bravado," but Geraldo garnered a respectable viewership. However, Rivera has pointed out that it was his 1987 show "Men in Lace Panties and the Women Who Love Them," that turned the talk format in a more sensational direction. The following year, he broke talk show rating records with a highly publicized show on Nazi skinheads. During the show's taping, a brawl had broken out between two of the guests--a 25 year-old leader of the White Aryan Resistance Youth and black activist Roy Innis. A thrown chair hit Rivera square in the face, breaking his nose. The show was news before it even aired. The press jumped on this opportunity to use Rivera as an example of television's new extremes. A November 1988 cover of Newsweek carried a close-up of his bashed face next to a headline reading, "Trash TV: From the Lurid to the Loud, Anything Goes."

Geraldo continued throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s to capitalize on his the sensational aspects of his reputation. He inserted himself into the talk show narrative often using his own exploits and bodily desires to fill out the issue at hand. In a show on plastic surgery, Rivera had fat sucked from his buttocks and injected into his forehead in a procedure to reduce wrinkles. A few years later, in another procedure, he had his eyes tucked on the show. The publication of his autobiography Exposing Myself in the fall of 1991 caused a major stir due to Rivera's revelations of his numerous affairs. In 1993, Rivera tried to recoup his former role as a "serious" journalist by hosting a nightly news talk show on CNBC called Rivera as well as continuing the daytime Geraldo.

In a 1993 interview with The Seattle Times Rivera offered an analysis of his own place in American life. "I'm so much a part of the popular culture now. I'm a punch line every night on one of the late-night shows.... I'm used as a generic almost in all the editorials and commentaries and certainly all the books about whether the news media has gone too far. It's just that, what is a review going to do to me? They either like me or don't like me, but I'm always interesting to watch." By mid-1996 Rivera was once again redesigning his programs to reduce elements that could be charged with exploitative tone. With an outcome yet to be seen, he remains, as he says, "always interesting."

-Susan Murray

 

GERALDO RIVIERA. Born in New York City, New York, U.S., 4 July 1943. B.S., University of Arizona, 1965; JD. Brooklyn Law School, 1969; postgraduate work at University of Pennsylvania, 1969; attended School of Journalism, Columbia University, 1970. Married 2) Edith Bucket "Pie" Vonnegut, 1971; 3) Sherryl Raymond, 1976; 4) (divorced); 4) C.C. Dyer, 1987; children: Gabriel Miguel, Isabella. Member of anti-poverty neighborhood law firms Harlem Assertion of Rights and Community Action for Legal Services, New York City, 1968-70; admitted to New York Bar, 1970; in television from 1970, beginning at Eyewitness News, WABC-TV, New York City. Host of numerous television specials. Member Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund; Puerto Rican Bar Association. Recipient: Smith fellowship, University of Pennsylvania, 1969; 7 Emmy Awards; 2 Robert F. Kennedy Awards; Peabody Award; Kennedy Journalism Award, 1973, 1975. Address: Geraldo Investigative News Group, 555 West 57th St, New York, NY 10019.

TELEVISION SERIES

1970-75 Eyewitness News, WABC-TV, New York City
1973-76 Good Morning, America (host)
1974-78 Geraldo Rivera: Goodnight, America
1975-77 Good Morning, America (correspondent)
1978-85 20/20 Newsmagazine (correspondent/senior              producer)
1987- Geraldo (syndicated) (host)

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES

1992 Perry Mason: The Case of the Reckless Romeo         Television specials (selection)
1986 The Mystery of Al Capone's Vault
1986 American Vice: The Doping of a Nation
1987 Innocence Lost: The Erosion of American Childhood 1987 Sons of Scarface: The New Mafia
1988 Murder: Live From Death Row Films
1990 The Bonfire of the Vanities

FURTHER READING

Heaton, Jeanne Albronda, and Nona Leigh. Tuning In Trouble: Talk TV's Destructive Impact On Mental Health. San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 1995.

Leershen, Charles. "Sex, Death, Drugs and Geraldo." Newsweek (New York), 14 November 1988.

Levine, Art. "Blitzed: Ed Murrow, Meet Geraldo." The New Republic (Washington, D.C.), 9 January 1989.

Littleton, Cynthia. "Geraldo Takes the Pledge." Broadcasting & Cable (Washington, D.C.), 8 January 1996.

Livingstone, Sonia, and Peter Lunt. Talk On Television: Audience Participation And Public Debate. London: Routledge, 1994.

Munson, Wayne. All Talk: The Talkshow In Media Culture. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 1993.

Silverman, Art. "Network Mcnews: The Brave New World of Peter, Dan, Tom...and Geraldo." ETC.: A Review of General Semantics (San Francisco, California), Spring 1990.

Timberg, Bernard. "The Unspoken Rules of Television Talk." In, Newcomb, Horace, editor. Television: The Critical View. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Priest, Patricia Joyner. Public Intimacies: Talk Show Participants And Tell-All TV. Creskill, New Jersey: Hampton, 1995.

See also Talk Shows