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 declined 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. “With his passing, the media industry he loved so dearly loses one of its great champions. 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 as 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.”
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