When I found out last week that Geraldo Rivera’s publicist granted me a 15-minute interview with the famous journalist, I immediately went into panic mode and most of my self-confidence flew right out of the window.
After all, Geraldo has been in the news business for 48 years, had his own talk show for over a decade (1987-98), broadcasted far-flung adventures in war and peace all over the world, uncovered scandals and injustices with passionate investigative reporting and published eight books, which he told me later that he wrote completely by himself. Geraldo, who’s also an attorney, has won over 170 journalism awards in his career. He is currently working as a Fox News correspondent and making news as a close friend of President Donald Trump.
After I started thinking about it, is there anything that Geraldo Rivera hasn’t done yet?
Geraldo was coming to Delaware County to talk about and promote his new book, “The Geraldo Show: A Memoir,” a heartfelt, eye-opening autobiography of Geraldo’s extraordinary personal life and career. WPHT1210 rented out the Media Theatre to present Geraldo as a part of its 2018 Speaker Series. I found out later that WPHT had rented out Media Theatre in January when it presented Fox political commentator and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in the speaker series.
Residents of the Delaware Valley, who came from near and far, paid an admission fee in advance. The price included a book that attendees could get signed by Geraldo at the event if they pleased. Geraldo was interviewed on stage by WPHT radio personality Rich Zeoli, and audience members were able to submit questions in advance. Zeoli did an excellent job, and, although I had never listened to his radio show before, I want to now because he was so riveting, witty and interesting conducting the Geraldo interview.
The plan was for me to meet Geraldo at Media’s Fellini Café Trattoria, where the journalist was going to have dinner with 1210WPHT’s Dom Giordano, prior to the event at the theater. The plan started crumbling almost immediately after I arrived when Dom said that Geraldo was held up in NYC traffic so he wouldn’t arrive in time for dinner.
“Darn it,” I thought. “There probably goes my opportunity for an interview with this journalistic legend.”
My guess was that he would arrive with minutes to spare before he had to go up on stage.
Back at the theater, guests were pouring in, and I was watching my interview possibility go up in smoke with the minutes ticking by. When Geraldo arrived, the WPHT team whisked him upstairs. I talked with some other guests, and we all marveled how Geraldo looks the same throughout the decades, with not much visible aging.
Anthony Bellapigna, owner of Fellini Café, generously personally delivered a dinner for Geraldo, but he graciously held off eating so that he could sign some books and meet and greet with a select group upstairs. When there was a short lull, I took advantage and swooped in to say that I was supposed to interview him at the restaurant beforehand. Politely and happily, he said, “Please, ask me any questions that you want right now.”
I was stunned by how nice and down-to-earth he was. Even though my heart was pounding out of my chest, his calm, friendly manner put me quickly at ease. I began to rapidly fire off the questions that I had prepared earlier that day, and we joked and talked easily. He caught me off guard when he said that his 99-year-old mother had died just the day before and he was going to fly to Florida for her memorial service after the event. I admired him for keeping the WPHT commitment despite his personal heartache. Following the funeral service, his brother and two sisters would go out on a yacht to scatter his mother’s ashes in the Gulf of Mexico, he said, where they scattered their father’s ashes 30 years earlier.
A graduate of Maritime College, Rivera is an accomplished sailor and explained how beautiful it will be to reunite his parents. He was emotional and respectful when he spoke of “Grandmom Lil,” as everyone called her. Following the emotional boat trip on the Gulf with his siblings, he would then jet off to Paris where he would meet his wife and young daughter. That’s when I snapped back into remembering whom I was talking to — the jetsetting Geraldo Rivera!
Most of what Geraldo told me in our short interview was repeated in a similar way during his interview on stage with Rich Zeoli. He talked about his stints on “Celebrity Apprentice” and “Dancing With the Stars” and how the 9/11 terrorist attacks affected the his life and that of his family and propelled him to report from the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I asked him how he keeps up with the times and what advice that he would give a young journalist starting out. He answered that “it’s a challenge to stay relevant,” and he relies on his children to keep him up to the minute on social media. One thing that he would tell young journalists is that school counts a lot less than you’d think when you get out in the field. It’s all about practice and more practice. Experience is the best education, he said.
Geraldo discussed his eclectic group of close friends that includes stoner comic Cheech Marin and political commentator/radio talk show host Sean Hannity, as well as President Donald Trump. He defended President Trump’s cancellation of the Philadelphia Eagles visit to the White House.
“All due respect to the Eagles, but they were rude to the president,” Rivera said simply.
Calling the public’s overall treatment of President Trump “disrespectful,” Geraldo said no matter what some Americans think of the 45th president, they should always show respect for the presidency and the Office of the President. He jokingly called Twitter “the president’s drug of choice,” but praised President Trump, saying he is “very strong and very smart” and “so are his children.”
Both native New Yorkers, Rivera and Trump have known each other for decades through various phases of their lives. I asked him how they met, and Rivera laughed. He said that they met in 1976 at the engagement party of Rivera’s first wife. The journalist has been married five times. His has now been married to wife Erica for 18 years, and they have a daughter together. Erica is 32 years younger than Geraldo, a fact that made Rich Zeoli good-naturedly tease him sporadically with jokes throughout the interview. Geraldo has four other children from his previous four marriages. He told me that he has remained friends with all of his exes.
Geraldo talked about the day he broke the news to America about the Navy SEALS finding and killing Osama bin Laden. He honestly shared stories of his humble roots and how hard he worked to get to where he is today, starting out with “meager resources as a long-haired street reporter” after graduating in the ’70s. Listening to Geraldo was like walking through history, covering wars, people, places and pop culture for “20/20,” “Good Morning America” and a host of highly rated investigative specials on NBC and other networks.
He discussed the unforgettable opening of noted crime lord Al Capone’s secret vault, his friendship with the late Joey Vento, his infamous boxing match with Frank Stallone and how he was the only talk show host ever to get his nose broken on air in a skirmish with guests.
“No matter that I won hundreds of awards through my life,” Geraldo joked, “I just know my tombstone is going to read ‘He opened Al Capone’s vault and found nothing and he got his nose broken in an in-studio brawl.’ Everyone wants to talk about those two things.”
Although he has said and done it all, Geraldo remarked that one of his most valued accomplishments came at the very beginning of his career, when he was a young reporter for WABC-TV in New York. He presented a series exposing the deplorable conditions at New York’s Willowbrook State School for the intellectually disabled. The state-run institution was designed for 4,000 residents, but by 1965, over 6,000 lived there in conditions so poor that Sen. Robert Kennedy called it a “snake pit.” Geraldo said that his award-winning investigative reports led to a full government investigation and its eventual 1987 closure, as well as federal legislation protecting people with disabilities. Geraldo shared that many of the residents were moved into small homes, paving the way for the group homes that exist across America today. To this day, Geraldo told me, he is still involved in mental health and disability issues and causes.
“How do you do it?” I asked him, knowing my interview time was severely limited and trying to get it all in there. “How do you keep up the pace of jetting around the globe? Do you think you already reached the pinnacle of your career or can we expect to see lots more from you?”
Geraldo said that, among many other things, he is currently shooting a crime series on “Murder in the Family” for Reelz TV. He lives in Cleveland and appears on “Fox and Friends” twice a week.
“My endurance and durability shock even me sometimes,” he laughed. “I’m not ready to slow down anytime soon — I am trying to make the 50-year mark in my news career.”
“Lucky for us,” I thought!
After his talk on stage, Geraldo patiently hung around to sign more books and exchange a few words with his fans. My heart didn’t calm down to its regular beats for about two days after — it was an amazing night!
To watch the podcast of Geraldo Rivera’s interview in Delaware County,or to find out more about the WPHT1260 speaker series, visit 1210wpht.radio.com. To find out more about the book or Geraldo, visit geraldo.com.
Readers can reach Peg DeGrassa at firstname.lastname@example.org.