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Sumner M. Redstone, media mogul who controlled CBS and Viacom, dies at 97

The Boston native took a chain of 55 drive-in movie theaters built by his father and parlayed it into control of one of the world’s largest media empires.

Mr. Redstone had once described his holdings as “the most diversified electronic media company in the world.” And that was before he acquired Paramount Communications and CBS.John Bohn/Globe Staff/file

Sumner M. Redstone, the Boston native who took a chain of 55 drive-in movie theaters built by his father and parlayed it into control of one of the world’s largest media empires, died Tuesday at his Los Angeles home. He was 97.

Combining ferocious tenacity with foresight, Mr. Redstone built a formidable reputation in a business environment known for sharp-edged bosses. He is credited with developing several trends in the media industry, including the “multiplex,” or multiscreen cinema complex — for many years the industry’s standard configuration.

At the height of his power, Mr. Redstone, was chief executive officer and president of National Amusements Inc., the Norwood-based movie theater chain, and chairman of Viacom and CBS, which he split in 2006. (The two merged in 2019, a move championed by Mr. Redstone’s daughter, Shari.) He presided at various times over a remarkable array of media properties. They included Paramount Pictures; the cable channels MTV, VH-1, Nickelodeon, and Comedy Central; the CBS and CW television networks; CBS Radio; the publisher Simon & Schuster; syndication rights for such television hits as “The Cosby Show” and “Roseanne”; and some 950 movie screens on three continents.

Mr. Redstone would see that late-20th-century empire shrink, with the rise of streaming, “cord-cutting,” and other entertainment options. He went from a regular top 10 ranking in Forbes magazine’s list of the richest Americans to 413th place, in 2019. Not that Mr. Redstone needed to take out a second mortgage. Forbes estimated his personal worth that year at $4.2 billion.


Mr. Redstone, then chairman of Viacom Inc., in a Blockbuster store in Manhattan in 1998. MARILYNN K. YEE/NYT

In February 2016, Mr. Redstone stepped down as head of CBS and Viacom. His ongoing control of the media empire had become an issue in November 2015 when an ex-girlfriend filed suit questioning his mental competence. A judge dismissed the case in May 2016. Three months later, a settlement was reached in Mr. Redstone’s favor in another suit, this one questioning his mental capacity and contesting his control of Viacom and National Amusements.


National Amusements continues to hold a controlling stake in the combined ViacomCBS, and that stake is directed by National Amusements’ board of directors. Shari Redstone is chair of ViacomCBS and president of National Amusements.

Mr. Redstone had an 80 percent stake in National Amusements, while Shari Redstone holds a 20 percent stake. With his death, the majority stake will now be managed via a trust, and Shari Redstone and her son Tyler Korff have joined the trustees.

In 1988, Mr. Redstone described his holdings as “the most diversified electronic media company in the world.” Six years later, he bested QVC Inc. in an epic struggle to purchase Paramount Communications, an acquisition that led some observers to call him the world’s single most important entertainment magnate. Five years after that, he acquired CBS. If “Content is king!,” as Mr. Redstone famously proclaimed, then he was a king of kings.

A fierce determination drove him. Mr. Redstone’s tenacity allowed him to survive a fatal fire at the Copley Plaza Hotel in 1979 by hanging onto a third-story ledge, waiting for rescuers to arrive. It also moved a fellow film exhibitor to say, “I’ll never build a theater near Sumner. I don’t want to compete face-to-face with him. . . . He’s tough.”

Tough and also highly contentious. The job security of Mr. Redstone’s top executives resembled that of Henry VIII’s wives. Viacom CEOs Frank Biondi and Tom Freston were unexpectedly fired by Mr. Redstone. And he pressured heir apparent Mel Karmazin to leave Viacom in 2004. “An intellectual gorilla,” an admiring Biondi called Mr. Redstone in a 1995 Globe interview, a year before his dismissal.


Mr. Redstone and Shari Redstone with Philippe Dauman, president and CEO of Viacom in 2012 in Beverly Hills. Getty Images/Getty

Mr. Redstone also famously feuded with Tom Cruise (who’d later lampoon him with his performance as a coarse movie mogul in “Tropic Thunder”). “It’s like ‘Apocalypse Now,’” Viacom chief operating officer Thomas E. Dooley said of Mr. Redstone in a 2012 New York Times interview. “He loves the smell of napalm in the morning.”

For all the glittering prizes he possessed, Mr. Redstone eschewed a glittering lifestyle. “I’ve never cared about money,” he wrote in his autobiography, “A Passion to Win” (2001). “Money is really only the report card on what you accomplish.”

For many decades, Mr. Redstone lived in the three-bedroom house he bought in Newton Centre in 1958. He later moved to a $20 million house in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Mr. Redstone’s contentiousness extended to his family. Brent Redstone received $260 million from his father after settling a 2006 lawsuit against him for restricting a trust the elder Redstone had given him. Mr. Redstone’s first wife filed for divorce on three separate occasions, twice withdrawing the suit. And he skirmished for years with Shari Redstone, who became president of National Amusements in 1999. A particularly stunning turn of events in the messy legal battles in Mr. Redstone’s final years was the rapprochement between father and daughter.


“My father led an extraordinary life that not only shaped entertainment as we know it today, but created an incredible family legacy,” Shari Redstone said in a statement on Wednesday.

* * *

Sumner Murray Redstone was born in Boston on May 27, 1923, the son of Michael Rothstein and Belle (Ostrovsky) Rothstein. His father changed the family name when Mr. Redstone was still a young man. Brought up in a West End tenement, Mr. Redstone went on to graduate from Boston Latin School with one of the highest academic records in its history. In 1989, he was honored by the school.

Mr. Redstone graduated from Harvard College in 2½ years and served as an Army lieutenant in a military intelligence unit breaking Japanese codes. Shortly after graduating from Harvard Law School, in 1947, he married Phyllis Gloria Raphael, whom he’d met at a temple dance. They divorced in 2002.

In 2003, Mr. Redstone married Paula Fortunato, a teacher in the New York public schools. The couple divorced in 2009.

After law school, Mr. Redstone and his first wife moved to San Francisco, where he clerked for Judge William Orr of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. In 1948, he became special assistant to the US attorney general. In this position, Mr. Redstone worked on more than 50 antitrust suits. He left the Justice Department in 1951 to join a Washington law firm.

He returned to Boston in 1954 to work for his father’s drive-in theater chain, which Mr. Redstone took over three years later. He had gotten his start in the business with a summer job selling hot dogs at a concessions stand. A key to the chain’s success was real estate. Mr. Redstone’s father had made a practice of buying the land his drive-ins were built on rather than leasing.


Mr. Redstone’s legal background would stand him in good stead. “Litigation is generally offensive to me,” he once said. “All that happens is dissipation of intellectual and financial resources.” Even so, Mr. Redstone was not averse to pursuing lawsuits — usually successfully.

Litigation was an excellent vehicle for exercising what he once termed an “unlimited capacity for confrontation.” Via the courts, Mr. Redstone got Hollywood studios to end the practice of blind booking of upcoming films and limiting the release of first-run films to indoor theaters.

Mr. Redstone’s success as a film exhibitor made him want to be a film distributor. “We sometimes wish we were they, and they were we,” he said in a 1981 Globe interview. Mr. Redstone could see that film exhibition offered limited growth potential. “That notion is what brought me to Viacom,” he later explained of his 1987 takeover of the entertainment firm. “My instinct was that Viacom was at the cutting edge of the revolution in home entertainment.”

Viacom’s management attempted a leveraged buyout of the company. When Mr. Redstone fended off their effort, the managers resigned, and he was left owing more than $2 billion for a company with no one to run it. Yet the $3.4 billion purchase proved to be a success — and paved the way for his takeover of Paramount seven years later

Before taking over Viacom, Mr. Redstone had acquired large chunks of stock in such motion picture studios as 20th Century Fox, Orion Pictures, and MGM-United Artists, later selling them at a profit of several hundred million dollars. When Coca-Cola acquired Columbia Pictures in 1982, for example, Mr. Redstone reportedly made $26 million on the deal as the largest single shareholder in the company.

Such successes whetted his appetite for Paramount.

“The Deal From Hell” Mr. Redstone dubbed it. What started as a friendly takeover proposal in 1993 devolved into a bidding war with QVC. After five months and a boost in his original $8.4 billion offer to more than $10 billion, Mr. Redstone eventually won. He called it a “cruel, abusive, and ridiculous battle.”

By comparison, the $37.3-billion merger with CBS in 1999 was child’s play, the result of two weeks’ intense negotiations between Mr. Redstone and Mel Karmazin, the head of CBS. Karmazin had approached Mr. Redstone about buying Viacom. Demurring, Mr. Redstone countered with a proposed takeover of CBS. “I think it is fair to say that this man has not lost his fastball,” Karmazin said of his new boss when the deal was announced.

Mr. Redstone’s toughness was most dramatically evident during the Copley Plaza fire. He described it in a 1985 Globe interview.

“Flames swept into the room. Suddenly I found myself literally burning alive. My body is 40 percent burned. When this was happening, I thought: ‘My God, what a horrible way to die.’ With my legs totally burned, I somehow opened a window, climbed out on a ledge and held on with one hand. I had to fight off the instinct to let go, to fall. Over and over again, I counted to 10. It was a combination of terror and horrible pain. But I knew I had to hang on.”

Mr. Redstone’s injuries necessitated five operations at Massachusetts General Hospital, lasting a total of 35 hours. He later made a sizable contribution to MGH’s burn center because, he explained, “they had a lot to do with my being here today.” Other local recipients of Mr. Redstone’s largesse include Boston University and Harvard law schools. He also variously served on the boards of MGH, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the Museum of Fine Arts, Jimmy Fund, and Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

The fire left Mr. Redstone with a disfigured right hand and made walking painful. But that didn’t keep him from working 18-hour days and resuming tennis with the aid of a special strap for holding his racket.

In addition to his son and daughter, Mr. Redstone leaves five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. There will be a private family funeral. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a memorial service will be held at a later date.

Jon Chesto of the Globe staff contributed to this report.