8 Decades of The Hollywood Reporter
Sumner Redstone's tenacity should never be underestimated. Viacom initially said its 88-year-old chairman planned to miss this year's shareholders meeting because of an "unavoidable conflict," leading to speculation about his health. But when the curtains parted at the corporation's New York headquarters on March 8, Redstone -- who rearranged his plans -- was front and center. "The reports of my absence from this meeting have been greatly exaggerated," he said.
Redstone's tenacity is no surprise, given his famous battle during the 1979 fire at Boston's Copley Plaza hotel.
As Redstone described in his 2001 autobiography, A Passion to Win, he awoke in his third-floor room after midnight to the smell of smoke, opened the door and was enveloped in flames. He backed away and forced open a window. Then 55, Redstone crouched on a small decorative ledge, "hanging on to the window sill, my fingers cupped, my right hand and arm in the fire and burning."
On the same floor were cast and crew of the movie A Small Circle of Friends, including the late Brad Davis (Midnight Express), Shelley Long (Cheers), Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and director Rob Cohen, who went on to helm 2001's The Fast and the Furious. Davis and Allen pounded on doors to alert other guests. "It was very much a nightmarish scene," recalls Allen. "Everywhere there was smoke. When we'd pound on doors and people opened them, you'd see they were trying to pack." Some of the film crew jumped from windows and suffered broken bones.
Recalls Cohen, "I knew it was a bad sign when the wallpaper started to curl." When the fire reached his corner room, the director also was forced onto the ledge, a half-dozen windows from where Redstone clung ferociously until rescued. Redstone suffered third-degree burns covering 45 percent of his body that required three major skin-graft operations.
"I saw a guy whose arm was on fire hanging on," recalls Cohen. "Later, I found out it was Sumner. Years later, when he was in the battle with Barry Diller to buy Paramount and popular wisdom was that Diller would win, I would tell people: 'I saw that old man holding on with his arm on fire. He ain't letting go of Paramount.'"