After four decades on the tube, Geraldo Rivera is just about as well known as a guy can get. “People either love me or hate me,” says the man with one of the most recognizable mugs in America. But no matter which camp folks fall into, one thing’s for sure: Everybody knows who he is. “Oprah, Cher, Lassie and me!” he agrees with a laugh.
To mark his 40th year in the TV biz, this weekend his current show — GERALDO AT LARGE (airing at 10PM EST Saturday and Sunday on Fox News) — will feature a retrospective that takes viewers down Memory Lane with the chair-dodging, vault-opening, war-covering newsman who once got high on national television to demonstrate the effects of smoking marijuana. And putting together the special was no easy task! “The hardest part was just finding everything! It’s been so long and there have been so many incarnations,” shares the TV vet. “There are some things you remember, some you remember just in the retelling, and others you’ve forgotten completely.” Certainly, neither he nor viewers will ever forget the 1988 GERALDO episode in which his nose was broken during a skirmish with racists. So thank goodness, he chuckles, “I found the chair I got hit by!”
How his career is defined by the public depends, he says, on how old the person is. “Some relate to me from the talk-show days, others from coverage of the war in Iraq.” As for Rivera, he considers the work he did in exposing the horrific conditions at Staten Island’s Willowbrook State School — a state-funded institution for children with developmental issues — the most important thing he’s ever done. “It helped change the way we think about the mentally retarded and developmentally disabled,” he says proudly of his Peabody-winning coverage, which began in 1972. “People put down TV news and punditry, but that is an example — that 15-year-long expose — of how television news can be part of the process of positive social change.”
Unlike many who take up a cause for personal reasons, Rivera — who continues to fight for the mentally disabled — was simply moved by what he saw during his first visit to Willowbrook. “It was the trauma of that experience,” he admits. “I had nobody in my family that was impacted, no personal experience. I was absolutely in the dark about it.” Working on the story proved to be an eye-opening experience… in more ways than one. “I don’t say this very often, and I guess it’s kind of shameful in a way, but I was always very hesitant when I saw someone who was mentally handicapped. You know, you kind of look away, you don’t know whether to be embarrassed, whether to say hello. In my generation, we hid away people who didn’t look ‘normal.’ I had to conquer that aspect of my own prejudice.” But the story was one that demanded to be told. “I had to find out what the humanists in the field thought was a better way of dealing with the situation than throwing 60 or 70 people with profound disabilities into a room with one or two attendants and no one to really care for them. It’s what I imagine World War II soldiers felt like when they found the death camps. It was just shocking. It was early in my career and it was something that, I must say, was both a scar and a badge of honor.”
These days, Rivera can be found tackling tough issues on his Fox News show. And while that may seem an odd fit, given his rather liberal views — “I am for a woman’s right to choose, and I don’t care who marries who as long as they’re in love,” he declares — that’s not how he sees it. “If anything, working at Fox has forced me, in many ways, to appreciate the sincerity of those who see the world differently.” That said, he realizes that despite having labored in the news genre his entire life, there’s one interview he’s unlikely to land. “Although I’ve been generally supportive of President Obama, I think he’s gonna give The Dog Food Channel an interview before he gives it to me.”