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Sumner Redstone: Empire Builder for the MTV Generation

Sumner M. Redstone belonged to the Age of the Media Mogul, a time before Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google, when street-smart executives like Rupert Murdoch, Barry Diller and John Malone brawled in a bid to dominate the world’s screen time.

That era is all but done. The swashbucklers have essentially ceded the Hollywood stage to a group of coolheaded executives who like to give the impression that they earn their billions more through their knowledge of algorithms than the brutal tactics of corporate warfare.

But the executives who run the digital businesses that have come to dominate the entertainment world would not have gotten very far without the programs and films that were brought to market by ferocious moguls like Mr. Redstone, who died on Tuesday at age 97.

He wasn’t so much an innovator as he was a maximum opportunist. He didn’t invent new forms of entertainment; he used cagey maneuvers to build an empire. He had the gall to borrow ungodly sums to close a deal. He loved to buy things. He loved to sue his rivals.

Mr. Redstone started with a string of drive-in movie theaters and became the main architect of ViacomCBS, the media giant that includes the CBS broadcast network, the cable channels Showtime and MTV, and the Paramount film studio.

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Credit…Fatih Saribas/Reuters

The former Army officer with flame-red hair (in later years it was dyed carrot) liked to say he was self-made, but he had a considerable head start, thanks to his father, who founded the drive-in chain in the 1930s. By the time the younger Redstone joined the family business in 1954, car culture was king and drive-ins were all the rage.

Even his father, Mickey Redstone, had help, having started his career with $50,000 furnished by a Boston mobster, Harry Sagansky, known as “Doc.” “It was my father’s money,” Mr. Sagansky’s son, Robert Sage, recalled in “The King of Content,” a biography of Mr. Redstone by the journalist Keach Hagey. “The Redstones didn’t put any money in it.”

Soon after Sumner Redstone came aboard, he developed a reputation as an irascible dealmaker who barked his way through transactions. In a less polite time, long before leadership coaches and Power Point presentations, he once yelled so loudly that one of his teeth shot across the room. Through the din of a blustery career, he expanded the drive-ins into a nationwide business of “multiplexes,” a coinage he claimed.

A graduate of Harvard Law School, he was very much at home in the crannies of the legal system, and with his sharp Boston brogue he once argued a case before the Supreme Court. The law was his everyweapon. While hammering out a deal, he often threatened to sue the people he was negotiating with in an effort to gain some leverage. Often enough, he made good on the threat.

Despite his brains and ruthlessness, he was still a second-tier player when he was in his 60s, at least by Hollywood standards. The entertainment executives with alpha status were not mere exhibitors, but owners of the films that made the theaters come alive. Mr. Redstone wanted that power. The glamour, too.

Almost overnight in 1987 — a few months shy of his 64th birthday — he became one of the country’s most powerful media chiefs in a $3.4 billion hostile takeover of Viacom, the parent of the cable networks MTV and Nickelodeon.

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Credit…Rick Maiman/Sygma via Getty Images

Decades before Netflix, cable was the original disrupter of the traditional TV business. And Mr. Redstone was particularly besotted with MTV. Its chaotic Times Square headquarters, a brightly lit playground filled with record execs and veejays, made him feel younger, he said. He borrowed an emperor’s ransom — $3 billion — to make the acquisition happen, putting up his family company along with $400 million in cash.

“Everyone said I overpaid,” he wrote in his autobiography “A Passion to Win.”

The biggest prize was Paramount. To land it, he had to outgun Mr. Malone, the cable magnate whom Al Gore once called “Darth Vader,” and Mr. Diller, the onetime chief executive of Paramount and the founding executive of the Fox television network.

In those days, six years after the Viacom deal, Mr. Redstone was still considered something of an arriviste, while Mr. Diller and Mr. Malone had plenty of Hollywood friends. When Mr. Diller and Mr. Malone joined forces to ward off Mr. Redstone’s pursuit, it seemed unlikely that the outsider from Massachusetts would get what he so craved.

To finance the long-shot scheme, Mr. Redstone arranged a merger with the video-rental chain Blockbuster and got some help from NYNEX, the company that eventually turned into Verizon. By Feb. 14, 1994, he had taken control of Paramount in a $10 billion deal. That evening, Mr. Redstone, who favored off-the-rack suits from Filene’s Basement, celebrated at the ur-den of power, the “21” Club in Manhattan, and offered a toast: “Here’s to us who won.”

For the son of a onetime linoleum salesman who had grown up in a Boston tenement, Paramount epitomized American success. It was home to defining films of the last century like “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Ten Commandments,” “Chinatown,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Top Gun” and, Mr. Redstone’s favorite, “The Godfather.”

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Credit…Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Making a reference to one of Hollywood’s founding moguls, he told one of his executives, “I want to be Louis B. Mayer,” according to “The King of Content.” Mr. Redstone eventually lived out the fantasy, holding court at his Beverly Park compound when he was not dining at the clubby Italian restaurant Dan Tana’s on Santa Monica Boulevard, where New York strip steak was served with a side of pasta.

For a time Mr. Redstone controlled the fortunes of major players from coast to coast, a group that included Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg in Los Angeles, and David Letterman, Dan Rather and Mike Wallace in New York. At its peak, his empire was worth more than $80 billion.

If you were an executive in Redstone world, you agreed to a certain bargain: You would get a big title and the money to match it, but he would get the credit. And so he went through executives like water: Frank Biondi, Tom Freston, Mel Karmazin …

Mr. Redstone’s own scorecard has plenty of blights. The Blockbuster acquisition, of all things, turned into an albatross, as video on demand flourished on cable boxes and Apple’s iTunes. Viacom eventually had to get out of the home-video business; it was a disaster.

Other blemishes include the firing and rehiring of the box office superstar Mr. Cruise; a missed opportunity to buy Facebook in 2005, when it appeared willing to sell for $2 billion (though some dispute it was ever for sale); another missed chance, to buy Marvel Entertainment in 2009; and his continued support of Leslie R. Moonves, the CBS chief whom Mr. Redstone often referred to as a “super genius.”

Mr. Moonves was ousted from the network in 2018 after a dozen women accused him of sexual assault, a pattern that had occurred over decades. (He has denied the accusations.)

And then there is Paramount, which has often languished in last place among the major studios, with an anemic production slate and few major franchises. Mr. Redstone’s prize acquisition is still in turnaround, the victim of a shift to digital that the late-blooming, analog-era executive may not have seen coming.

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