Sumner Redstone: the media mogul who cheated death

Sumner Redstone, a legendary dealmaker and eccentric star of the film industry, said that he was never going to die. It’s one of the few things he was wrong about in his extraordinary career.

The death of Sumner Redstone, “a ferocious dealmaker who elbowed his way into Hollywood”, robs the movie industry of one of its most eccentric and influential characters, says the Financial Times. Redstone, who built the Viacom-CBS empire and coined the phrase “content is king”, was one of the last great media moguls. A cantankerous man, who insisted well into his nineties that he was “never going to die”, he strove to fend off the grim reaper on a diet of “goji berries, tomato juice and fish”. At 97, death caught up with him.

Living the American dream

Redstone’s life story, which began in a Boston tenement, had all the makings of the American dream. And he lived it like a protagonist in a drama – never backing down from a fight. Over the years, Redstone waged war on everyone from fellow moguls and actor Tom Cruise to former lovers and his children. Indeed, “his brash manner and family feuds helped to inspire the character Logan Roy on HBO’s Succession”. In 1979, Redstone survived a deadly hotel fire, says the Los Angeles Times. He later described how he had crouched on a narrow ledge as the flames seared his flesh. “The pain was excruciating but I refused to let go.” He suffered third-degree burns over 45% of his body and spent months in hospital – later citing his recovery as proof of his grit and determination. “The will to survive is the will to win too.”

Born Sumner Murray Rothstein in 1923, Redstone lived in fear of his “demanding” father – a linoleum salesman who built a small chain of drive-in cinemas and later changed the family name to Redstone, says The New York Times. “Whatever we did was not quite good enough,” Sumner later wrote. “I did nothing but study… I had no social life. I had no friends.” After winning a scholarship to Harvard to study law during the second world war, he was invited to Washington to join a team of army cryptographers. But spying didn’t suit Sumner; neither, he found, did law. He returned to Boston in 1954 to join the family business. 

Redstone’s first great “insight” was perceiving a big shift in US cinema-going in the early Sixties – he saw that the future lay in big out-of-town complexes and coined the term “multiplex” to describe them. The company, renamed National Amusements, swiftly became a cinema powerhouse, says The Guardian. His rise to mogul status” began in 1987 – the year in which both his parents died – when he spent $3.5bn on a hostile takeover of Viacom, in a deal financed by junk-bond king Michael Milken. 

The success of youth channels MTV and Nickelodeon cemented Redstone’s conviction that content was all-important. In 1994, he defeated industry heavyweights Barry Diller and John Malone in a battle to acquire movie studio Paramount, four years later adding the CBS TV network to his empire in a $37bn deal that was then the biggest in media history. 

A disappointing end to the drama

The pursuit of Redstone’s ambition came “at the expense of those close to him”: he waged a bitter power-struggle with his brother Edward, and his heirs, to keep control of the company. Towards the end of his life, this “personal soap opera” coincided with “seismic shifts in technology” that ravaged Redstone’s “treasured investments”, says the FT. As he increasingly retreated from public view, succession-planning became “fraught” – culminating in a high-stakes 2016 lawsuit that saw his daughter, Shari, take the reins. She now inherits a “decidedly smaller and more vulnerable” empire. It probably wasn’t the grand finale Redstone hoped for. 

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