Hollywood Flashback: When Sumner Redstone Was 42 and Not Yet a Mogul

Courtesy of Viacom
Redstone presented Julie Andrews with the Theatre Owners of America's star of the year award in 1965.

Redstone, who is stepping down as executive chairman of CBS and Viacom, got his showbiz start at his father's drive-in before making his way into the theater business: "He was a brilliant exhibitor and tough as nails," recalls former Warner Bros. domestic distribution chief Dan Fellman.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

At 92, Sumner Redstone is in the news for his failing health and for stepping down as executive chairman of CBS and Viacom. But he got a late start as a media mogul, only edging toward the big leagues in 1981, when he was a relatively senior 58.

Redstone got his showbiz start at his father's drive-in. When he was 18 in 1941, he worked the refreshment counter at the 500-car Sunrise Drive-In Theater — New York's first, on Sunrise Highway in Valley Stream — which his father, who also was a liquor wholesaler and nightclub owner, built in 1938. He left the job (and Harvard) to spend World War II with an Army intelligence unit that cracked Japanese military codes. (Redstone learned Japanese at an intensive training course.)

After the war, he graduated from Harvard Law School, took government jobs with the Justice Department, practiced law (mobster Bugsy Siegel tried to hire him, but Redstone declined) and in 1954 returned to his father's theater business. "He was a brilliant exhibitor and tough as nails," recalls Dan Fellman, former president of domestic distribution at Warner Bros. "Most exhibitors lease their theaters from shopping centers. Sumner bought land and built them." By 1981, his National Amusements chain had 250 screens and a 5 percent stake in 20th Century Fox (he bought shares in 1977 immediately after seeing a screening of Star Wars).

Profits from the stock's sale led him to purchase a stake in Columbia Pictures (which he soon sold to Coca-Cola for a $48 million profit) and put him on the path to his first megadeal: 1987's $3.2 billion leveraged buyout of Viacom. (He merged that company with CBS in 2000, then split them in 2005.) But the deal that really put him in the spotlight was his 1993 acquisition of Paramount. The drama of his protracted bidding war with Barry Diller was front-page news — and forced the studio's price up from $8.2 billion to $9.8 billion. For years, he referred to Diller as "my $2 billion ex-friend."

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