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Sumner Redstone Prevails by 'Force of Will'

November 19, 1989|KATHRYN HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

His grandchildren call him "Grumpy," and some businessmen regard Sumner M. Redstone as the steeliest of opponents. But at 66, with a Forbes magazine ranking as America's third-wealthiest person in America, Redstone can afford to be almost anything that he wants.

He personally chose the "Grumpy" nickname because, he says, "It has no age connotations and because it's consistent with what some people say is my personality--which is not true."

By most accounts, the chairman and 83% owner of Viacom Inc. is a tough and crafty New Englander who--when the mood suits--can out-charm or out-philosophize most entertainment industry brethren in New York and Los Angeles.

His "sheer force of will is uncommonly strong," says Fox Inc. Chairman Barry Diller, recalling how Redstone survived a 1979 hotel fire by hanging onto a window sill. The recovery from the severe burns he received was an ordeal, with 60 or 70 hours of surgery in five operations, but the burn unit at Massachusetts General Hospital now bears Redstone's name because he sued the hotel and donated the money that he received in settlement.

"Sumner is the smartest guy I know in the business," says producer Frank Price, recalling their dealings when Price was chairman of Columbia Pictures and MCA Motion Picture Group. Price says he admired the diligent way that Redstone chose theater sites, bought the underlying real estate and built a movie theater chain that is now the seventh largest in North America, with nearly 600 screens.

Redstone was also a shrewd stock picker, taking large stakes in several entertainment firms, but he never attempted to take control of a company until he invested in Viacom in 1986. By then, he had concluded that his movie theater business was maturing, with little room for growth. As his son-in-law Ira Korff notes, however, the theater company--called National Amusements Inc.--provided the launch pad for Redstone's $3.2-billion takeover of Viacom.

Redstone invested $420 million in the Viacom acquisition, borrowing the remainder against the media and entertainment company's assets. Due to Viacom's strong performance on the stock market, Forbes magazine last month estimated Redstone's worth at $2.88 billion or more.

Switching gears in his 60s would appear a challenge, but Redstone has had at least five other careers in as many decades, beginning with his World War II military stint deciphering Japanese codes.

A Harvard-educated attorney, he spent six years in Washington as a lawyer in the Justice Department and then with an antitrust law firm before returning to Boston in the mid-1950s to run the family's movie theater business. In 1982, he joined the faculty of Boston University Law School.

Early in the decade, Redstone's investments in 20th Century Fox Film Corp. and Columbia Pictures Industries netted reported profits of $55 million, but his financial prowess attracted little publicity at the time. When he disclosed a 6% stake in Viacom in May, 1986, some Viacom staffers pulled "a Dun & Bradstreet (credit report) to find out who Sumner Redstone was," recalls George S. Smith Jr., now chief financial officer.

Redstone, interviewed in his Viacom office in mid-Manhattan, says: "Most people think I was born rich, which is a myth that I resent." The elder son of a one-time truck driver, Redstone says he was born in a Boston tenement in 1923. The father proved a successful businessman who later owned nightclubs (the Latin Quarter and Mayfair) and started the theater company. Redstone attended Boston's most rigorous public school, Boston Latin, where he graduated first in his class.

As an undergraduate at Harvard College, he was tapped to join a military intelligence group that cracked wartime codes. Later, he returned to Harvard for his undergraduate and law school degrees.

Redstone is a weekend commuter to Boston, which he still calls home. Married for 42 years, he has lived in the same house in suburban Newton for more than three decades.

Adversity struck in 1979, when Redstone was trapped in an early morning Boston hotel fire. Severely burned while clinging to a window ledge awaiting rescue, Redstone admits now that doctors "didn't think I would live. Then they told me I'd never walk."

Ten years after the fire, "I only think about it when I'm hitting a tennis ball and say how damn lucky I am." A friend notes that Redstone is a fierce competitor on the courts even though the racket has to be lashed to his injured hand.

"The fire brought home something I believed long before . . . that great successes are built on failures and calamities and frustrations, not on small successes," Redstone says.

The Viacom chairman waxes to the subject of what he would like to pass on to his two children and five grandchildren: a large stake in Viacom, of course, but also "zest for living" and the ability to "not only survive but go on."

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