Geraldo Rivera on 50 Years in TV, His Friendship with President Donald Trump and Biggest Regrets

"I'm honored, I'm humbled by it," the Fox News Channel roaming correspondent-at-large says of the 50-year TV milestone

Geraldo Rivera
Photo: Benjamin West

It's been 50 years since Geraldo Rivera made his television debut — and after five decades of broadcasting, the journalist has no plans to retire.

"They used to say that my life has had more ups and downs than the cycle of roller coasters at Coney Island," Rivera, 77, tells PEOPLE with a laugh. "I believe that that’s true."

"I’m honored, I’m humbled by it," the Fox News Channel roaming correspondent-at-large says of the milestone. "It exhilarates me and exhausts me."

After leaving law to pursue the reporting business — a decision his parents were initially "horrified" by — Rivera did his first story for Eyewitness News on Sept. 8, 1970.

Since becoming a journalist, Rivera has covered countless stories (including his Willowbrook State School exposé), hosted his own self-titled talk show, written multiple books, traveled the globe, worked as a war correspondent, graced the cover of Playgirl magazine, competed on Dancing with the Stars, and interviewed President Donald Trump more than 30 times.

In celebration of Rivera hitting his 50-year anniversary in TV, the Emmy- and Peabody-award winning reporter opens up to PEOPLE about his life, including his achievements, his regrets, his friendship and support of the divisive president, having different political views than his (fifth) wife, Erica Levy, and what he still hopes to do. (Note: this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

How does it feel to have been in television for 50 years? That’s a huge milestone.

It’s funny. I think of Regis Philbin, the hardest working man in show business. I think that longevity and endurance and resilience, the fact that I’ve lived through so many different trends, styles and crazies and ups and downs. They used to say that my life has had more ups and downs than the cycle of roller coasters at Coney Island. [Laughs] I believe that that’s true. I’m honored, I’m humbled by it. It exhilarates me and exhausts me.

Geraldo Rivera
Geraldo Rivera writing John Lennon’s obituary for ABC Nightline in 1980. FOX News Channel

Looking back at those five decades, what do you consider to be your biggest accomplishments both personally and professionally?

Substantively, I don’t think it can be argued that my stories over the years about the developmentally disabled have really helped change the way intellectually disabled people are cared for from coast to coast. Every state, every city we campaigned against and effectively helped end the whole institutionalization of the population we used to refer to as mentally retarded — now developmentally disabled. I think that we used television, I used — I don’t mean to use the imperial we — but my team and I used television for positive social change. We didn’t just complain about the institutionalization. We suggested and advocated for a solution to the problem, the creation of the group homes that now are prevalent throughout the nation, throughout the world, really.

So I think that it is, without a doubt, my biggest triumph and it’s also my recurrent nightmare because it’s something that, having done so many stories and being so close to so many people, either with the affliction or their families or their friends or their neighbors or relatives, you carry that. I think about, I worry about and I in some ways feel almost guilty that I’ve gone on in life and I live in a big house and people know me. I know this sounds weird, but whenever I see a family with a child [with Down syndrome], it’s like they’re related to me. They respond to me that same way.

They teach the Willowbrook saga in just about every social work school at the college level and at the high school level. The film has been screened millions of millions of times. It’s more than a story to me. The story of my life. I will never be able to rise to that level. It’s almost like I started at the top and the rest of my life has been a follow-up.

Geraldo Rivera
Geraldo Rivera alongside Bernard Carabello (in 1988), a former resident of the infamous Willowbrook State School who spent 18 years institutionalized, although he was not mentally impaired. Carabello was released from Willowbrook following Rivera’s exposé of the institution’s practices. FOX News Channel

Is there anything that you haven’t yet accomplished — either professionally or personally — that you still want to do?

I sailed my boat around the world, and I sailed it 1,400 miles up the Amazon River. I rode my motorboat up the Erie Canal to be on Lake Erie here in Cleveland. I want to keep going around the great lakes and then go to Chicago and then go down the Alamo River to the Mississippi River and complete the inner loop. That’s my last remaining adventure that I’ve got planned single hand — I want to do it single hand.

So fun! What type of boat do you have?

We donated a big sailboat that we sailed around the world, Voyager. We did eight hours with the Travel Channel and all those various sagas. Now for the last 22 years I’ve also had Hinckley. I have a Hinckley 36-foot picnic boat, which is easy to single hand. It’s got a little joystick that goes along with the steering wheel. It’s resilient, made in Maine, modeled after the old lobster boats. Me and my boat are very close.

What an adventure!

I look forward to it. The only reason I’m not going right now — this is the time I was going to do it — is I’m worried about the coronavirus. You go to a port in these little towns, and the whole joy of it is to, you know you stop, go to the local bar, you hang out with the folks and find out what they’re into and whatever. And you go onto the next port. And you pick them at random almost. When we came through the Erie Canal, we’d go through different towns and they’d have signs up, “Geraldo, stop here!” because they heard that I was doing some stuff with Fox & Friends. They heard I was on the way. I love the country, but it’s a weird time. There’s a lot of distractions with the virus and the election. Everything else that’s going on, the violence now — I don’t think it’s a good time to go traveling just yet.

How long would that trip take?

Oh, it’ll take me, you know I’d have to stop and work here or there. It would take me at least six weeks to two months.

Would you go by yourself or take a friend?

Yeah, I’d go by myself and maybe, typically what I do is I go 500 miles and maybe my brother would meet me or one of my buddies would meet me. We’d go another 100 miles or 200 miles together. Mostly single handled, but I definitely would meet friends. My wife doesn’t like [laughs] spending too much time on the boat. It’s funny, when we were unmarried she was my most eager sailor. But then once we got married, almost 17 years ago now, she said, “no more motorcycles” and “I don’t like the boat.”

Geraldo Rivera
Geraldo Rivera, his wife Erica Levy, and their daughter Sol at Levy’s 40th birthday party in NYC in 2015. FOX News Channel

Is there anything you consider a regret in your life, or something you wish you had done differently?

That’s a great question. Of course, you’re reminded of the old Sinatra song “Regrets, I’ve Had a Few.” You know, I kind of wish I didn’t get married five times. I made choices earlier and stuck with them. I regret some of the more flamboyant aspects of the talk show years, although it’s hard — the problem is if you start replacing [something] here or there, you start wondering about the whole edifice come tumbling down on you. I mean, the fights I’ve had, and maybe attracted too much personal attention, not enough to the work.

But you know, when you live through different decades — now remember, this is my sixth decade. My actual anniversary is Tuesday [Sept. 8], my first story was for Eyewitness News. I covered the losing candidate for state attorney general and they only showed my hand. They cut me out of it, but they showed my hand holding the microphone with the candidate. And my mother recognized the star on my left hand — I have the Star of David tattoo on my left hand — and so she had been with my dad horrified that I got into the business, left law to get into the reporting business they knew nothing about. But when she saw my hand on television, she became a convert. She says that then she loved the fact that I was a big star.

Geraldo Rivera
Geraldo Rivera's children (L to R): daughter-in-law Deborah, son Cruz, daughter Isabella, daughter Sol, daughter Simone and son Gabriel, husband of Deborah. FOX News Channel

Looking at the state of our country, which seems to be so divided, I’m curious what your opinions are about current events, including this election.

Let me start there. I am an undecided voter leaning to President Trump, although I may vote for Kanye [West]. My wife is an ardent [Joe] Biden/[Kamala] Harris supporter. I can send you the funniest picture. We have a Biden/Harris sign in my front yard. And then a sign that I handmade right next to it that has an arrow that says “wife only. Husband is undecided, leaning to President Trump.” It’s hilarious. It’s become like a tourist attraction here in Cleveland. Everyone stops.

But putting politics aside, there’s no doubt that the minority populace, particularly African Americans in this country, feel that they’re really getting the short end of the stick. That they have a totally different experience in life, even with all equality and everything that we have in this country. That a Black man going out in his car at night has a whole different bundle of anxieties than a non-Black man does. I think that that’s an injustice that has to be fixed in this country. I also believe that there’s such dysfunction and disorder and violence in inner city communities. Remember, my first house was in the Lower East Side. My law practice was in Spanish Harlem. I’m a city kid, I’m a ghetto kid. I lament, I agonize over the inequalities in America and I just wish that there was a more [of] an atmosphere that was more healing and more united. That this division that has cleaved American society in half is one that I think will survive [who] wins the election and increasingly we’ll have two Americans. We’ll have an America largely people of color and young idealists on the one hand; and a largely, or almost universally white side, working class who are resentful of people who want to upset the apple card. Anyway, the resentment is terrible, the anger is terrible, the division is raw and profound and undeniable.

It reminds me somewhat, in 1969 I was arrested twice in Washington D.C., one of them after we kidnapped Donald Rumsfeld, who at the time was the head of the office of economic opportunity. We were legal services lawyers — all Black and brown lawyers — and we chained ourselves in his office. He writes about it in his autobiography. It’s hilarious that he says that I grew up to be me, and there I was one of the people holding him captive. But I mean that division there was almost, that was a young-old division more or less. This is a Black-white division, rich-poor division that’s much more I think raw and egregious. Then, that was mostly about kids being afraid they were going to be drafted. This is about something much more fundamental. It’s about fairness, it’s about equality, it’s about how do you solve problems without violence.

You did say that you’re also considering voting for Kanye. What do you feel —

That’s kind of a joke.

Being a Trump supporter and your wife being a Democrat, how are you maintaining the peace in your home?

Erica now is co-hosting my daily radio show, so we get to articulate our various positions. Erica feels very strongly. She watches MSNBC most of the day. She listens to 538 and The Daily, the podcast. She’s really educating herself to a great degree about politics. We try never to debate politics in person or when we’re not on the air because the topic is so inflammatory. The discussion tends to be impassioned, so we kind of have a truce in our real life and save the ebb and flow of big politics for when we’re on the air.

I support the president, but I don’t endorse the president. I don’t think it’s my job to endorse.

He listens, but he doesn’t always heed my advice. But I’m honored that the President of the United States, the most powerful person on earth, listens to a humble Puerto Rican Jewish guy that’s been knocking around television for half a century.

Geraldo Rivera Playgirl
Geraldo Rivera's 1988 Playgirl cover. Playgirl

Switching gears a little bit, reflecting on your Playgirl cover …

[Laughs] Well, I didn’t look that badly. I mean, the Playgirl cover you can forgive because it was so long ago and that was when there was still a Playboy mansion and Playgirl was the hot magazine for gay guys or women. But that was that era. I don’t remember what year it was, ‘70s or ‘80s. I think that much more damning, in terms of reflecting on my flamboyance, is my [near-nude] selfie. When you asked about things I regret, I thought of saying that, but then I said, “Eh, I won’t bring it up if she doesn’t.” [Laughs] But I take that into that 70 is the new 50 and I think that is much more controversial than my Playgirl cover.

If you don’t consider it a regret, would you cover Playgirl again if asked to be on the cover?

Um, I hesitate because I would say yes, but my wife would say a resounding no; so would my daughters. So the answer is no I would not.

Do you think you'll ever retire?

That’s a great question. We’re doing a 50th anniversary on Fox News Channel, so we’re going through all the photos and news clips and I had to do some on-camera stuff. And when I signed off and I thanked everybody, I just did the close an hour ago: “Goodnight America and thank you for sticking with me for 50 years” and so forth. And I did my kind of signature, I kissed two fingers and I made the victory sign. I said, “I’m Geraldo Rivera, reporting.” It would be so dramatic if I just said, “I’m Geraldo Rivera, reporting for the last time” and just walked off the set.

But I don’t know what I would do if I retire, to tell you the truth. I don’t know. I don’t know how I would fill my time. I’ve written eight books, I write lots of articles, I tweet here or there. Because I know I’ll still be engaged as long as I can speak, as long as I can see what’s going on. I feel that I have a point of view that reflects an underserved community. I call myself roadkill. You know anything in the middle of the road is roadkill and I call myself roadkill, the moderate view of life. I think that that middle is the ground I’m going to go down fighting on.

If there’s a job that you love and are passionate about, why retire?

Fox is very good to me. They’ve been very nice. They know where I stand. I don’t have a show of my own. I do [Sean] Hannity two to three times a week. I do Fox & Friends. I do Bill Hemmer’s show in the afternoon. And they’ve been very respectful and kind.

Geraldo Rivera
Geraldo Rivera alongside the late Hugh Hefner for Good Night America in 1974. FOX News Channel

Is there anything that I didn’t ask that you would like to share or include?

That’s such a huge question. I am grateful for every break I’ve ever had, every opportunity I’ve had. Nothing has come easily. It’s been at times very challenging, but it’s also enormously rewarding and I swear to God when I say that there are very few people who can say that they are on a first-name basis with the whole country and I think that I am.

It’s a huge accomplishment that you’ve been in it for 50 years.

I’ve gone through about 20 generations of television critics that said I would never last. [Laughs] I was like a one-hit wonder. Nobody knows their names.

Over the weekend, FOX News Channel aired the one-hour special Fox Nation Presents: I Am Geraldo 50 Years; the entire series is available for download on FOX Nation.

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