Billionaire Media Mogul Sumner Redstone Dead at 97
Sumner Redstone, the billionaire media magnate whose family company controls CBS and Viacom, and whose career spilled over from boardrooms to gossip sheets, has died. He was 97.
Redstone’s health had steadily deteriorated over the past decade before his passing on Tuesday. National Amusements, the media holding company he controlled, confirmed his death in a Wednesday statement.
“Sumner played a critical role in shaping the landscape of the modern media and entertainment industry,” the company said. “Sumner, a loving father, grandfather and great-grandfather, will be greatly missed by his family who take comfort knowing that his legacy will live on for generations to come.”
Though buffeted in the past decade by physical decline, succession battles and warring ex-girlfriends, Redstone in his day was a business juggernaut and once the richest man in entertainment.
Through his prescient confidence in the future of cable TV, Redstone built Viacom — and himself — into a powerhouse.
“Viacom is me, and I am Viacom,” he was famous for saying.
Redstone took a small chain of drive-in theaters started by his father and, through bare-knuckle takeover battles and sheer determination, became a dominant force in entertainment.
As the chairman and controlling shareholder of CBS and Viacom, he presided over an array of media businesses that included CBS, Paramount Pictures, Showtime, Simon & Schuster, MTV, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon.
In 1999, he added the Tiffany Network to his holdings. The $37 billion merger with CBS catapulted Redstone from the business pages onto the public stage at age 76.
“What I’m proudest of is taking a bunch of drive-in movie theaters and building them up into two of the best media companies in the world,” he told Forbes in October 2007.
He also rose to become one of America’s richest men, amassing a personal fortune estimated by Forbes at more than $6 billion.
Redstone claimed credit for coining the phrase, “Content is king” — a mantra he would repeat when asked about emerging threats to his empire.
In his relentless drive, Redstone earned a reputation as a limelight-loving CEO, a win-at-any-cost dealmaker and a mercurial leader obsessed with his own stock price.
His fractious relationships with family members set up a decades-long struggle over who would gain control of an irrevocable trust that holds his interests in CBS and Viacom.
His personal life — including a penchant for squiring around much younger women — provided ample fodder for the gossip pages.
The twice-divorced media mogul ended his 52-year-marriage to Phyllis Redstone in 1999. He split from his second wife, Paula Fortunato, a school teacher, in 2008 after a five-year marriage. He has two children from his first marriage, Brett and Shari.
Redstone made no secret of his desire to outlast his rivals and retain his grip on his empire. Despite his fading health, he refused to talk about his succession plans, declaring that he intended to live forever.
“I have no intention of dying,” the then-91-year-old Redstone told The Hollywood Reporter in September 2014.
Sumner Murray Rothstein was born May 27, 1923, on Boston’s West End. His parents, the late Belle and Michael Rothstein, changed the family’s name to Redstone in 1940. He was born in a tenement, but his father had done well enough to move the family to the affluent suburb of Brighton when Redstone was still a young boy.
Redstone attended Harvard and Harvard Law School. As an undergraduate, he was tapped by a Japanese history professor to help break Japan’s military codes. After law school, Redstone was a special assistant to US Attorney General Thomas C. Clark. He later headed up the tax department at a law firm.
In 1954, he joined his father’s Dedham, Mass., business, Northeast Theater Corp. His father also owned the Boston branch of the Latin Quarter nightclub. Redstone went to work alongside his younger brother, Edward, and his arrival would spawn the first of several family feuds that spanned decades and several court battles.
Edward sued his father and brother, accusing them of mismanagement and other wrongdoing. He left the business after they bought out his stake. Redstone eventually took over the company from his father, built it into one of the largest theater chains in the country and changed its name to National Amusements Inc., or NAI.
Redstone had a close call at Boston’s Copley Plaza Hotel in March 1979. He survived a fire that raged through the building by clinging to a ledge outside his room, but was badly burned. The harrowing ordeal left him was scars on his arms and legs. It took him more than a year and multiple surgeries to recover, but he insisted the incident played no role in fueling his ambitions.
“It doesn’t take near death to bring you to life. Life begins whenever you want it to begin,” he wrote in his 2001 autobiography, “A Passion to Win.”
At the age of 64, a time when most CEOs are thinking about retiring, Redstone seized the opportunity to become a bigger player in the entertainment world. Worried that pay TV and VCRs would hurt movie theater attendance, he started to look for a “cutting edge” company to future-proof his business.
In 1987, he borrowed billions to fund a bruising takeover battle for Viacom, then the owner of MTV and Showtime, and shrugged off criticism that he vastly overpaid. He went on to wage a similar takeover battle for Paramount Communications, beating fellow media moguls Barry Diller and John Malone with a nearly $10 billion bid, and then bought movie rental giant Blockbuster Entertainment for $8 billion.
In 2000, Redstone pulled off what was then the largest media marriage ever, when Viacom acquired its former corporate parent, CBS, for $35 billion. He tapped CBS president Mel Karmazin as his eventual replacement in 2000, gushing over his new lieutenant in announcing the deal to buy CBS.
But after four years and numerous reports of a frayed relationship, Karmazin stepped down as president and chief operating officer of the combined company.
The falling out was part of a pattern for Redstone: He would gush over his top lieutenants, only to turn on them when they didn’t move fast enough or failed to share his fixation on the stock price.
Redstone seemed headed for semi-retirement in 2005, when the then-82-year-old mogul announced plans to split his empire into two publicly traded companies and set up a succession race. Viacom got the faster-growing cable networks and film studio, while the slower-growing broadcast, radio and book publishing businesses went with CBS.
MTV pioneer Tom Freston was named head of Viacom, while broadcast veteran Les Moonves led CBS. Redstone remained the chairman of both companies, controlling the shares through NAI.
But a year later, Redstone forced out Freston, a stunning move that Redstone said stemmed from his frustration with Viacom’s internet strategy — or lack thereof — and lagging stock price.
Freston was replaced by Philippe Dauman, a member of the Viacom board of directors and a close confidant of Redstone’s.
Just a few weeks earlier, Redstone had split with one of Paramount’s biggest film stars, Tom Cruise. Redstone cited the actor’s embrace of Scientology as well as his controversial behavior — jumping on Oprah Winfrey’s couch and declaring his love for then-wife Katie Holmes — as the reason for the split.
Redstone had a falling out with his only son, Brent, who sued his father for trying to cut him out of the company. Redstone settled the suit by buying out Brent’s stake. The two didn’t speak for years.
He was also estranged from his only daughter, Shari, with whom he feuded over whether she would one day succeed him as the chairman of both companies. Redstone threatened to oust Shari altogether — at one point communicating with her only by fax — until she backed off and turned her energies to building her own business endeavors.
Shari nonetheless rejected her father’s $1 billion offer to buy out her 20 percent stake in NAI. And in 2015, a stunning reversal brought the two back together. They set about ejecting Viacom chief Dauman, whom Sumner once called “the wisest man I ever met.”
Dauman resisted being ousted on grounds that Shari was orchestrating the coup to seize company control for herself. He also questioned Sumner’s mental capacity, claiming his former ally lacked the wherewithal to know what he was doing.
Dauman settled with Viacom for $72 million in August 2016, resolving a handful of lawsuits. His forced exit, however, signaled that the long-estranged Redstones — father and daughter — were on the same page.
The two then explored reuniting CBS and Viacom, but temporarily pulled back after encountering resistance from Moonves and his board.
Shari’s constant revisiting of the idea prompted CBS to file suit in May 2018. But two months later, The New Yorker published a bombshell article citing multiple instances of alleged sexual harassment by Moonves. He resigned after a second expose surfaced, and CBS and National Amusements reached a broad settlement that increased Shari Redstone’s power over the companies.
After investigating Moonves’ alleged misconduct, the CBS board in December 2018 fired him for cause, depriving him of $120 million in severance.
CBS and Viacom agreed to merge last year, united the companies after a split that Redstone had engineered 13 years earlier. Redstone was among the National Amusements directors who gave unanimous approval to the reunion.
A ‘living ghost’
After decades spent building his empire, Redstone’s participation at corporate events became minimal in 2014 and he spoke only a few words on earnings calls. Fortune magazine reported he attended his last board meetings that year and cited a witness who said he dozed and drooled during it, which raised the question about whether he was fit to run the company.
The next year, the Wall Street Journal reported Redstone had suffered mini-strokes that made speaking difficult, although he remained mentally sharp. In 2018, the paper reported that the aging media tycoon had been communicating with an iPad that was preloaded with audio clips of his voice saying “Yes,” “No” and “F–k you.”
Former girlfriend Manuela Herzer challenged Redstone’s mental competence in a November 2015 lawsuit after he kicked her out of his estate, referring to him as a “living ghost.” The suit revealed a bizarre, secluded life in his Beverly Park mansion that included frequent demands for sex and steak.
The suit alleged Redstone was hospitalized numerous times in 2014, leaving him with a feeding tube, catheter and severe speech impediments. A judge rejected the suit, but Herzer continued to pursue legal action against Shari Redstone, alleging criminal racketeering.
The suit was thrown out in May 2016 by a California judge who ruled that Redstone’s testimony had disproved Herzer’s claims. Herzer appealed the judge’s ruling, and the parties settled in 2019.
With Post wires