Sumner Redstone, Billionaire Media Baron, Dies Aged 97

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.

Redstone’s Daughter Speaks

“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.”

Sumner’s Served At Viacom And CBS

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Redstone controlled about 80 percent 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.

“He single-handedly transformed a family-owned drive-in theater company into a global media portfolio”

“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.”

Deteriorating Health Issues


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 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.

Near-Death Experience

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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 percent 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.”

The $37 Billion Viacom-CBS Deal

The $37 billion Viacom-CBS deal, announced in 1999, got off to a rocky start. At a nationally televised news conference, while CBS CEO Mel Karmazin was laying out his vision of the new media giant, Redstone interrupted by declaring: “I’m in control! Remember — I’m in control!”

Still, Karmazin became president and chief operating officer of Viacom, but in June 2004, he resigned — without telling Redstone directly of his decision. In an interview with The New York Times,Karmazin said he got tired of continuing reports about sour relations with the chairman.

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Redstone immediately named MTV Networks Chairman Tom Freston and CBS Chairman Moonves as Viacom’s co-presidents. When Viacom formally spun off CBS in 2006, Freston became Viacom’s chief and Moonves stayed at the helm of CBS (until he was forced out in September 2018). Nine months after the spinoff, Redstone fired Freston, furious that the latter lost a bidding war for to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which paid $580 million for the then-dominant social network. Redstone turned to Dauman, his long-time lawyer and confidant, as Viacom CEO.

The same year, Redstone fired Tom Cruise from Paramount after the actor’s run of odd personal behavior, including jumping up and down on Oprah Winfrey’s couch when discussing his relationship with Katie Holmes. (Cruise denied he had been fired, insisting he had quit.) “We don’t think that someone who effectuates creative suicide and costs the company revenue should be on the lot,” Redstone told The Wall Street Journal.

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King Lear Syndrome

Redstone was a fierce competitor. “From an early age. I always wanted to be Number One,” he said in the 2012 CNBC interview. “I’ve always wanted to win. That doesn’t mean I always have, or I always will, but it’s been my objective throughout my life, whether in school or in business Or family”.

Redstone married Phyllis Gloria Raphael in 1947, days after he took the bar exam. During their more than half century of marriage, which ended in divorce in 1999, they had two children, son Brent and daughter Shari.

Redstone had difficult relations with other family members. In 1971, his younger brother, Edward, sued him and their father, alleging they had marginalized his position with National Amusements, causing him to abruptly resign. Edward settled for $5 million and resigned from all family business matters.

Three years after Sumner Redstone’s first marriage ended, he married schoolteacher Paula Fortunato, about 40 years his junior. That marriage lasted five years, reportedly making her eligible for at least a $5 million award under terms of a prenuptial agreement, according to the Los Angeles Times.

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In 2006, Brent sued his father, alleging breach of fiduciary duties in connection with a buyback plan of National Amusements stock. The suit was settled in 2007 with Brent receiving $240 million while selling back his stake in National Amusements and relinquishing his board seat, according to Forbes.

A Star Legend Is No More

  • 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.

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