Monday, May 27, 2024

How Sumner Redstone Went From Army Cryptographer to Media Mogul


Sumner Redstone, then executive chairman of CBS and Viacom, was honored with the 2,467th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2012.

As Sumner M. Redstone cedes the chairman posts at CBS and Viacom, one of the business world’s most combative moguls is quietly stepping off the corporate stage.

For decades, Mr. Redstone proved one of the most voluble media titans, even in an industry full of outsize personalities like Rupert Murdoch and Barry Diller. A lawyer by training, he transformed his family’s movie theater business through savvy and daring into an entertainment empire that runs from the Paramount movie studio to CBS to Comedy Central and Showtime.

Mr. Redstone was born in Boston in 1923. His father, Max, who sold linoleum from the back of a truck, eventually bought a drive-in movie theater with his savings, then bought several more. Meanwhile, his son proved an academic whiz, graduating from the Boston Latin public school and then Harvard in three years. After a stint in Washington as a cryptographer for the United States army, Mr. Redstone returned to Harvard to earn a law degree. He initially stuck with the law, becoming a special assistant to the United States attorney general and then a partner at a Washington law firm. But business called in 1954, and he turned to the family’s movie theater business, eventually named National Amusements.

Business Career: Defying Death, Then Beating Out Rivals

In 1958, he sued major Hollywood studios for the right to show first-run movies at drive-ins, which were then considered a dumping ground for rerun films. The drive-ins soon gave way to movie theaters with multiple screens — Mr. Redstone named them multiplexes.

In 1979, he famously staved off death during a fire at the Copley Plaza hotel in Boston, clinging to a window ledge on an upper floor as “the fire shot up my legs,” as he put it in his memoirs. With third-degree burns over nearly half of his body, Mr. Redstone underwent numerous operations despite warnings that he might never return to a normal life.

Eight years after the fire, Mr. Redstone bought Viacom for $3.4 billion in a hostile takeover, exhibiting the kind of daring maneuvering that was to mark his career; he put the movie theater business up as collateral for the huge amount of loans required for the deal. In 1994, he added Paramount to his growing empire, fighting off both Mr. Diller and the telecommunications billionaire John C. Malone in a pitched battle. In 2000, Viacom then paid over $37 billion to buy CBS, reuniting the two businesses decades after separating and creating a true colossus astride the media landscape. In 2005, Mr. Redstone decided to split the company in two, again separating CBS from Viacom.

For a decade, Mr. Redstone went through a series of top executives at Viacom. He fired Frank J. Biondi Jr. in 1996, Mel Karmazin quit in 2004, and Tom Freston was ousted in 2006 and replaced by Philippe P. Dauman, the current chief executive who took over as executive chairman from Mr. Redstone on Thursday.

A damaged corridor of inside the Copley Plaza hotel in Boston after the fire in 1979.

In 1994, Mr. Redstone, right, added Paramount to his growing empire, fighting off both Barry Diller and the telecommunications billionaire John C. Malone in a pitched battle.

Mr. Redstone in 2003. For a decade, he went through a series of top executives at Viacom.

Shari Redstone, Mr. Redstone’s daugher, in 2004 inside the a theater run by National Amusements, the family business.

Recent Years: House-Bound in a Gated Community

In the early 2000s, Mr. Redstone established an irrevocable trust that would determine the future of his companies when he died or was incapacitated. In 2006, he had Paramount end its relationship with Tom Cruise because he felt the actor’s public behavior was hurting his value to the studio.

In November 2014, he participated in a company conference call for the last time.

A year later, a former companion of Mr. Redstone’s filed suit in Los Angeles challenging his mental competence, disclosing embarrassing details of his physical condition. The filing prompted renewed scrutiny of Mr. Redstone’s ability to serve as chairman of Viacom and CBS, positions he resigned from this week.

These days Mr. Redstone is mostly housebound at his mansion in the gated community of Beverly Park in Los Angeles. He receives occasional visits from his daughter and her family, as well as Viacom officials, including Mr. Dauman. People in the entertainment industry also stop by. Robert Evans, a film producer with longstanding ties to Paramount Pictures, is among those who regularly see Mr. Redstone, an assistant to Mr. Evans said — either attending movie screenings or just stopping by to visit.

Last year, a planned 92nd birthday party for Mr. Redstone on the Paramount lot was canceled, and was held instead at a smaller venue near his home.


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Author: Red

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