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Sumner Redstone (1923–2020), former chairman of ViacomCBS

by Linnea Crowther

Sumner Redstone was a billionaire businessman who rose from childhood poverty to build a media empire as the owner and former chairman of ViacomCBS.

Building his empire

Redstone didn’t inherit a family fortune – in fact, he grew up poor, his family struggling to scrape together the money for him to take a streetcar to school. But he was determined to succeed and he threw himself into his studies, ultimately graduating from Harvard Law School. Redstone practiced law for several years before joining his father in a new business ventures – a chain of drive-in movie theaters called National Amusements. Redstone took over the business in 1967 and then, as the popularity of drive-in theaters waned, tore many of them down and converted them to large indoor theaters, dubbing them multiplexes and starting a trend toward large movie houses with multiple theaters in each.

Redstone took over cable giant Viacom in 1987, leaping into the national spotlight as a major media mogul. He went on to buy Paramount Pictures, Blockbuster Entertainment, DreamWorks SKG, and CBS, the former parent company of Viacom. In the public eye for his fortune and his energetic ruthlessness with his businesses, Redstone became known for his tenacity and for his declaration that “content is king.” He stayed deeply involved in business even into his 90s, going into semi-retirement but still retaining much control as he hired and fired notables including Les Moonves, before reluctantly turning the reins over to his daughter, Shari E. Redstone, in 2016.

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Fighting for his life

In 1979, Redstone demonstrated the tenacity he was known for when he survived a devastating fire in a hotel room. The fire, started by a disgruntled hotel employee, tore through his room while he was sleeping. Redstone, his legs already on fire, made his way to the window and hung outside from a ledge, still burning, until he could be rescued by firefighters. He suffered third-degree burns over 45 percent of his body, but he fully recovered after several months and five operations.

Notable quote

“Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes it’s built on catastrophe.” —from Redstone’s 2001 autobiography, “A Passion to Win”

Tributes to Sumner Redstone

Full obituary: The New York Times

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