Just before the third season of the hit HBO television show Succession began, the show’s creator, Jesse Armstrong, was asked (again) what it was about real-life media tycoons Sumner Redstone and Rupert Murdoch that drove him to create a TV series about a fictional media family that bore some resemblances to each of them.
Armstrong’s answer was simple: when Redstone and Murdoch had been asked about their succession plans, both had joked they didn’t plan to die.
Review: Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Hollywood Media Empire – James B. Stewart and Rachel Abrams (Cornerstone Press)
“It felt like something quite basic about not wanting to give up and feeling that loss of influence at the end of your life,” Armstrong explained. “And I started to feel there was a show about what those people are like in general.”
Armstrong’s success has been to combine the all-too-common anxiety about our legacy with the elevated stakes that come with being one of those rarefied ultra-wealthy corporate media figures who believe mortality is negotiable.
It appears that for these media tycoons’ families, an inheritance goes beyond how much it’s worth, or what corporate outpost might come their way: it’s also about the family dynamic. Sibling rivalry, parental respect – and often, the banality of favouritism. Emotional fealty can have dollar signs attached to it.
We understand this almost instinctively in Armstrong’s depiction of the Roy family and the gruesome fascination patriarch Logan Roy conjures from a combination of psychopathic paternalism and deal-making wizardry.
But now we can also see it in even more lurid detail, with the release of a book by two New York Times journalists on Redstone’s savage battle to secure his own legacy: Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Hollywood Media Empire by James B. Stewart and Rachel Abrams.
An American success story
Redstone was one of those classic American success stories. His father sold linoleum, and went on to run two drive-in theatres, which Redstone would later develop into the movie theatre chain National Amusements. (And as a child, just like Logan Roy, Redstone briefly lived in a house with no inside bathroom.)
Redstone escaped his background with a scholarship to Harvard that set him on the path to a career that, at its peak, delivered him control of Viacom, Paramount Pictures, CBS, MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and publisher Simon & Schuster, as well as National Amusements. It was a playpen of great wealth and wide influence.
Unscripted makes clear that Redstone’s travails are even more compelling and incredible than his small-screen avatar’s. The reality is more toxic, more dysfunctional and far more complicated than any TV script.
Unscripted catalogues Redstone’s sexual predations – including finding on-air roles for women he was interested in (another Logan move), and repeatedly dating or trying to date his grandson’s girlfriends. Said one Hollywood executive of his behaviour: “He acts like a 15-year-old kid at summer camp.”
His fed-up grandson eventually hired TV’s Millionaire Matchmaker, Patti Stanger (whom Sumner called his “dream girl” and unsuccessfully pursued), to find him a companion. This would have unforeseen consequences.
But what Unscripted really reveals is how desperately Redstone clung to the hallmarks of his successful life, and how vulnerable that made him to those who wanted to take advantage of him.
Central to the book, and his later life – as Armstrong noted – is Redstone’s gobsmacking denial of his own mortality.
At the age of 85, and having survived a hotel fire in his 50s, and later prostate cancer, Redstone boasted to CNN’s celebrity interviewer Larry King that he had “the vital statistics of a 20-year-old”.
In case Larry had any doubts, Redstone laid out his case. “Even 20-year-old men get older. Not me. My doctor says I’m the only man who’s reversed it. I eat and drink every antioxidant known to man. I exercise 50 minutes every day.” Redstone even told one of his numerous paramours that he was the inspiration behind The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a film about a man who defies chronology by getting younger.
Not long after the King interview, Redstone’s health started to deteriorate. And that, of course, brought his family’s inheritance and succession issues into sharp relief.
The successor: Shari Redstone
Redstone had two children: a son, Brent, who was estranged from his father, and Shari, a lawyer, three years younger than her brother. The similarities of Shari (who, incidentally, has red-blonde hair) to Shiv Roy, played by Sarah Snook, have been noted.
Over the years, Shari had clashed bitterly with her father, sometimes publicly. At the same time she craved his affection and approval, which he dangled frequently before her (especially when he needed something) but then withdrew his favour.
Shari was initially nominated as his successor, but after a public feud between them, Sumner announced his inheritance would instead be shared between his five grandchildren.
The book hums with the steady undercurrent of the cruel and fraught relationship between Sumner and Shari, reaching its crescendo as Sumner chose two of his lovers to become his live-in carers in a bizarre affront to his family.
One of them was Sydney Holland, introduced to Redstone by the Millionaire Matchmaker: she became his live-in fiancee. The other was his old flame, Manuela Herzer, who moved in (with her daughter) while the house Redstone had bought her was being renovated – and stayed, sharing Holland’s duties of managing the household and Redstone’s medical care.
Together, they not only found every way possible to prevent Shari from visiting him – but also extracted US$150 million from him.
By that stage, Redstone was being fed through a tube into his stomach. He spent most of his day watching sport on TV, and could barely speak. The fate of his companies swung in the wind. Shari, who was still part of the corporate landscape, was trying to salvage something from the wreckage.
She never gave up, although she came close to walking away. All she wanted was a signal from her father that – after years of being patronised, yelled at, ignored and belittled – he trusted her.
After she managed to extract the two carers from the Redstone home (no easy feat), Shari “all but moved to Los Angeles” to be near her father. His nurses installed a large clock so he could track the hours and minutes until her arrival, and she “became adept at interpreting Sumner’s speech”.
There is an echo here too of Succession: Logan Roy’s business rival, Sandy, whose daughter Sandi – also apparently inspired by Shari – is his translator to the world, after he falls seriously ill (with what’s rumoured to be syphilis, seemingly a dig at his hypersexuality).
Sumner and Shari’s conversation turned to the proposal to sell a stake in Paramount to a Chinese property conglomerate. Sumner was viscerally opposed to the idea, hatched by a longtime executive whom Sumner now determined was on the outer.
“What do I do?” Redstone asked his daughter.
“This is your battle, not mine […] I have a new life,” Shari replied.
Redstone pleaded: “Shari, you have to do this. You need to stop this.”
For Shari, that was the moment he finally said: “Shari, I trust you.”
“I’ll do it for you,” she said.
Shari’s determination to follow her father’s wishes helped make sure the deal never happened.
All this will resonate with those Succession fans who felt the whiplash of Logan Roy’s disdain towards his children, and its savage counterpoint as he tried to woo them.
Logan seems indomitable, but what makes the Redstone story so compelling is, eventually, the patriarch’s vulnerability – his confrontation with mortality – and the desperation and loneliness that drove him to restore his relationship with his daughter.
There is no denying the other essential thread in Unscripted is one that clearly links Redstone’s appalling behaviour towards the women in his life with the corporate play that finally resolves his legacy.
The deal was to be a merger of the successful CBS network with the ailing Viacom, an idea Redstone had aggressively rejected for years. But the older Redstone became, the more appealing the merger became to the executives at CBS, particularly its chief executive, Les Moonves.
As the heat around the deal increased, rumours started to circulate about Moonves. Several women came forward to accuse Moonves of sexual harassment and, in some instances, alleged sexual assault.
As Unscripted follows Moonves and the complex network of law firms and investigations that surrounded him, Sumner Redstone recedes from view. Shari, emboldened and central to the corporate action, becomes the character linking the two ends of the Redstone story. She had counted Moonves as a friend who had helped make CBS successful. Her father had championed him – but the CBS chief had let Shari down and betrayed her with his behaviour. He had to go.
Recurring and relentless misogyny characterises the corporate, entertainment and media worlds. We see this in Redstone’s corporate kingdom – and in the fictional setting of Waystar Royco, the corporate behemoth in Succession. Truth marches alongside fiction, without a sideways glance.
The book is an assiduous piece of journalism from two Pulitzer Prize winners: Abrams was part of The New York Times reporting team that worked on the Weinstein stories, and her knowledge of that context gives Unscripted a sharp clarity.
But Abrams and Stewart also have some great material to work with: we eavesdrop on conversations, and read text messages and emails, that together amount to a picture of greed, arrogance and despair. Most of these details are on the public record because there has been so much litigation between various parties seeking to either protect Redstone’s legacy or snatch some of it for themselves.
It ended on August 11 2020, when Sumner Redstone died at the age of 97. The merger between CBS and Viacom went ahead and Shari attempted to reshape the culture with seven women on the 13-member board of the merged company.
Redstone might have died, but Armstrong’s other inspiration – Rupert Murdoch – continues. Murdoch turned 92 in March and seems resolute, if less robust.
Just like Redstone, Murdoch had his moment to pronounce on his longevity. He was 69 and had triumphed over prostate cancer.
“I’m now convinced of my own immortality,” he declared, although it’s highly likely he was half-joking. Nonetheless, there is longevity in the family genes: Murdoch’s mother, Dame Elisabeth, died at 103.
After Redstone’s departure, Murdoch remains the oldest media tycoon still actively in charge. It’s clear he believes there’s still much work to be done, but who will follow him from among his four grown-up children remains a work in progress.
Whatever happens, it’s highly unlikely the public turmoil and angst that surrounded the Redstone succession will be repeated with Murdoch: it has so far felt like a much more discreet display.
If there’s any doubt about how the Murdochs want to keep all this private, it’s that one of the terms of the settlement of Murdoch’s divorce from his fourth wife, model Jerry Hall, was that she couldn’t give story ideas to the writers of Succession.
And yet in a recent episode from what is the final series, Kendall Roy launched a new retirement product from Waystar, Living+, which he described in his unique corporate mangling as a “personalised longevity journey”.
What actually is that, Ken? Somewhere to go while you’re waiting, or just maybe some intimations of mortality? Most likely, it’s just a Jesse Armstrong joke.