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As fate would have it, I believe that I was the last journalist to interview Sumner Redstone, who died on Aug. 11 at 97. In December 2013, I shlepped to his Beverly Park Terrace estate and was ushered into a room where the then-90-year old mogul waited in an armchair, with his two companions, Manuela Herzer and Sydney Holland, looking on.
Within a matter of months, Redstone’s daughter, Shari, would allege that these two infamous lady friends — Holland, then in her early 40s, and Herzer, then pushing 50 — had taken control of her father’s life and milked him for tens of millions. Shari was in the interesting position of saying her father had been taken to the cleaners but was still mentally fit — otherwise, the Redstones’ control of their empire might be lost.
Shari would also go to war against another person who seemed to have an iron grip on her father: Viacom’s then-CEO Philippe Dauman, who was lining his pockets by the tens of millions while running the conglomerate into the ground. (I’m not sure if Dauman was the single worst CEO I’ve seen in my tenure covering Hollywood, but he’s a contender.)
By the time I parked in Redstone’s driveway, the stage was set: Herzer’s litigation with Shari would soon engulf Sumner in scandal. A picture would emerge of an old man fixated on indulging his salacious impulses. As he clung stubbornly to power, it seemed that the tenacious mogul was on the brink of destroying his empire.
All of this was not yet known at the time of my meeting with Sumner, but even then it was clear: The mandate of any interviewer was to try to figure it out whether he seemed compos mentis. He was dressed immaculately in a suit and tie, but certainly he was physically frail. Male helpers had to assist him, even from one armchair to another. Holland jumped up repeatedly to dab saliva from his lapels. He slurred his words — he subsequently lost the ability to speak — and he would repeat certain ideas loudly and insistently: Stick with exercise and antioxidants. Education is the key. Viacom is the greatest media company in the world. Luck had nothing to do with his success.
Even before I could ask the first question, Redstone began, seemingly to establish his command of the situation. “I should tell you what happened last night,” he said, referring to his own brief appearance at an industry dinner at the Beverly Hilton. He then rattled off the names of friends he saw — possibly, it seemed, memorized in what we might now call the person-woman-man-camera-TV tradition.
(The list of friends included producer Jerry Bruckheimer, then-Paramount CEO Brad Grey, Jon Voight, Ben Kingsley, Cuba Gooding, “and Marjorie — what’s her last name? She’s in a new show called Intelligence for CBS.” This was a reference to Marg Helgenberger.)
Redstone boasted that he talked to Les Moonves, then-president and CEO of CBS, and his counterpart at Viacom, Dauman, on a daily basis and offered them advice. “I’m very busy every day,” he said. These seemed like statements that a real hands-on mogul might not feel compelled to make.
But certain things he knew. He said Moonves could not buy a film studio — as it was believed he was hoping to do — without his blessing. He noted that Moonves was already making smaller movies, which was true. Sure, he might have sounded delusional insisting that the broadcast business would go on forever (“They broadcast what people want to see all over the world!”), but he had said the same thing about Blockbuster a decade earlier, when he was still a vigorous man.
Reading his answers to these questions now, he comes across as more in touch than he seemed in the room. But one can only be so aggressive when questioning a visibly enfeebled 90-year-old man. He responded with some specifics but often fell back on generalities. I think he knew I was trying to pin him down, and as he looked at me with shrewd eyes, it was clear he was enjoying the game. When The Hollywood Reporter published the interview with a cover photo of him posing regally in his living room, his office called to say he was thrilled and wanted 50 copies sent over right away.
In August 2015, Holland was ejected from Redstone’s house and life when his lawyer informed him that she had another lover. By October 2015, Shari also managed to get Herzer out of the house and written out of her father’s will. Costly, destructive litigation ensued, and it was Herzer’s demand that independent doctors examine Sumner to determine his competence that forced the onetime titan to relinquish his roles as executive chairman of CBS and Viacom in early 2016.
The final question in my Redstone interview was whether he had a proudest moment. “I’m proud about the fact that I was born in a tenement without a nickel and now I control two great companies,” he said. But even then, it was clear that his refusal to accept his own mortality was taking a big toll on the greatness of his companies.
Shari continued her fight for control and by August 2016, she had forced Dauman out at Viacom. It took her until September 2018 to rid herself of Moonves, who was abundantly competent but was hampering her plans to merge CBS and Viacom. (He resigned amid sexual misconduct allegations.)
By then, both companies had been weakened and dwarfed by competitors. Shari succeeded in merging the companies last year. ViacomCBS was valued at $30 billion then; it’s valued at $16 billion today. After years in which Sumner alternately embraced and then cruelly rejected Shari as his successor, she is left to fight a daunting battle to salvage the empire he ultimately led to the brink of disaster.
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