Billionaire Media Tycoon, Sumner Redstone Dead at Age 97

KEY POINTS

  • Sumner Redstone died Tuesday at age 97, National Amusements said in a statement Wednesday.
  • Redstone built his family’s drive-in theater chain into a multibillion-dollar empire encompassing CBS and Viacom.
  • He later became the center of a jilted lover’s lawsuit that nearly cost his family his financial legacy.

Sumner Redstone, the media mogul who built his family’s drive-in theater chain into a multibillion-dollar empire encompassing CBS and Viacom and later became the center of a jilted lover’s lawsuit that nearly cost his family his financial legacy, has died. He was 97.

Redstone, who often boasted that he would live forever, died Tuesday, according to a statement from National Amusements released Wednesday morning. The statement did not mention the cause of death.

Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone in screening room at National Amusements. 
Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone in screening room at National Amusements.
John Blanding | Boston Globe | Getty Images

“My father led an extraordinary life that not only shaped entertainment as we know it today, but created an incredible family legacy,” Shari Redstone, Sumner’s daughter and chair of ViacomCBS, said in a statement Wednesday. “Through it all, we shared a great love for one another and he was a wonderful father, grandfather and great-grandfather. I am so proud to be his daughter and I will miss him always.”

Redstone controlled about 80% of the voting stock of Viacom and CBS through his private holding company, National Amusements. In November 2019, his fortune was estimated at $3.9 billion. By Dec. 5, 2019, the first day of trading for the remarried ViacomCBS, it had dropped to a still formidable $2.6 billion. And in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it was valued at $3 billion in May 2020.

“Patience is a virtue that I do not respect,” Redstone said in a 2012 interview with CNBC. “If you’re patient, you’ll never go anywhere. It takes impatience to drive you to succeed.”

Under pressure from shareholders because of reports of Redstone’s declining health and mental competency, the CBS board on Feb. 3, 2016, announced his resignation as executive chairman and appointed CEO Les Moonves as his successor. A day later, Viacom named Redstone chairman emeritus and CEO Philippe Dauman as his successor as executive chairman. Redstone gave up his voting position on the Viacom board in February 2017.

“Sumner Redstone was a brilliant visionary, operator and dealmaker, who single-handedly transformed a family-owned drive-in theater company into a global media portfolio,” ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish said in a statement Wednesday. “He was a force of nature and fierce competitor, who leaves behind a profound legacy in both business and philanthropy. ViacomCBS will remember Sumner for his unparalleled passion to win, his endless intellectual curiosity, and his complete dedication to the company. We extend our deepest sympathies to the Redstone family today.”

Redstone’s health had been the focus of much speculation in his later years. With CBS and Viacom in merger talks in the spring of 2018, The Wall Street Journal reported that he was unable to speak much. Citing people who had been with him, the newspaper said the notoriously autocratic Redstone had an iPad connected to buttons to activate his recorded voice uttering “yes,” “no” and “f— you.”

A lawsuit filed in November 2015 by an ex-girlfriend 42 years his junior challenged his competency, claiming that he had become” a living ghost” and that his conversations had become little more than grunts. Redstone’s lawyers called the claims “preposterous” and a “despicable invasion of his privacy.”

On May 9, 2016, the judge dismissed the lawsuit after the billionaire asserted in videotaped testimony that he didn’t want the former girlfriend, Manuela Herzer, to play any role in his life. He repeatedly referred to her as “f—— b—-.”

Sumner Murray Rothstein was born in Boston on May 27, 1923, to Belle and Michael “Mickey” Rothstein. His father, a nightclub operator, later anglicized the German surname.

Sumner Redstone in 2012
Sumner Redstone in 2012
Getty Images

Japanese code breaker

Sumner graduated from Harvard and served in Army intelligence during World War II, helping to break the Japanese code. After the war, he graduated from Harvard Law School and worked for the federal government, first as a law secretary with the U.S. Court of Appeals, then as a special assistant to U.S. Attorney General Tom Clark. Meanwhile, his father’s National Amusements bought real estate in the Northeast and built numerous drive-in theaters. Sumner joined the business in 1954 and became CEO 13 years later.

As head of a theater chain, Redstone recognized the importance of content. In fact, he claimed to have coined the phrase “content is king,” often attributed to Bill Gates.

Near-death experience

In 1979, Redstone nearly died in a fire at Boston’s Copley Plaza hotel. In his 2001 book, “A Passion to Win,” he recalled waking up after midnight smelling smoke and making “the classic mistake” of opening his door. A man in the room next door did so, too — and died.

“I was enveloped in flames,” Redstone wrote. “The fire shot up my legs. The pain was searing. I was being burned alive.” He described staggering to the window of his third-floor room and climbing onto a tiny ledge, waiting desperately until firefighters finally arrived. Suffering third-degree burns over 45% of his body, he underwent surgery after surgery to graft his living skin onto the wounded areas. How did he survive this trauma at age 55?

“Determination,” he wrote, “is the key to survival. If I hadn’t learned that lesson before, I knew it well now.”

‘We bet the ranch’

With Redstone’s determination and his quest for content, National Amusements accumulated shares of Viacom International, the entertainment distribution company. In 1987, taking a huge risk by using debt, he successfully pulled off a hostile takeover of Viacom, which by then included MTV.

Leave a Reply