This is a town built on stories, the more salacious the better. So it comes as not much of a surprise that the twilight of Sumner M. Redstone’s epic career has become the stuff of dinner-table conversation, especially among those who knew the man when he was perhaps the most powerful figure in Hollywood.
Peter Bart, a former producer and film executive who served as the editor of Variety from 1989 to 2009, was dining recently with friends at Off Vine, a quiet Hollywood restaurant housed in a turn-of-the-century bungalow, when the inevitable came up. Others at the table included an A-list actress who knew Mr. Redstone well. “And they wondered, ‘How could Sumner get himself into this situation?’” Mr. Bart said. “It is very sad.”
Details about the 92-year-old tycoon’s private life surfaced during a headline-generating lawsuit, which fizzled in court last week. The story that emerged fell somewhere between film noir at its sleazy best and “King Lear.”
Mr. Bart said the billionaire’s plight was coming up a lot lately among movie-business people. “In some cases, there were expressions of empathy,” he said. “But there is impatience with Sumner, too, that he couldn’t keep his private life private.”
The legal proceedings revealed an aging lion who craved sex and steak, although he was too ill to leave his Beverly Park mansion and took his meals through a feeding tube. Court papers described him as “a living ghost” and told of female escorts making visits to his bedside while a nurse sometimes looked on.
As Mr. Redstone’s former lover and onetime live-in caretaker, Manuela Herzer, 51, battled his daughter, Shari Redstone, 62, for control of his daily care — not to mention what she saw as her rightful place in his will — this real-life melodrama had it all: wild shopping sprees, private-jet excursions, whispers of a sex tape and, in a bit part, an angry ex-con who seemed like a character out of a Coen brothers movie.
Hollywood dynasties have long run into complications in the final reel. In the 1950s, a philandering Jack L. Warner undercut his brother Harry for control of the family’s Warner Bros. studio, and the two never spoke again. In the early 1970s, Darryl F. Zanuck was ousted from 20th Century Fox in a coup, which his wife orchestrated to avenge her husband’s treatment of their son.
While those spectacles drew their share of press attention and loose talk, today’s corporate, almost bloodless entertainment industry seems less tolerant of executives who depart from the script. Sure, the stereotype of the hardhearted, expletive-spraying executive persists. But Mr. Redstone’s eccentricities — he once boasted that he shaved poolside in the nude — and the recent disclosure of his sexual exploits seem out of step with the airbrushed culture of 21st-century Los Angeles.
“Sumner is caught in a time warp,” Mr. Bart said.
The legal fracas has changed Mr. Redstone’s public image from a firebrand whose business acumen and ruthlessness won him control of Viacom, Paramount Pictures and CBS, a $40 billion empire, into something quite different. In the local parlance, he lost the plot.
The hubris that precedes a fall was evident in 2009, when he told Larry King, “I have no intention of ever retiring or of dying,” and once again in 2014, when Mr. Redstone told The Hollywood Reporter, “I’m not going to die.” Recent press attention has deflated such boasts. And secrets Mr. Redstone might have taken to the grave he reserved for himself in Massachusetts, where he was born in 1923, became the stuff of Internet chatter when Ms. Herzer — whom he banished from his Beverly Park home last year — filed suit.
“This is all very Shakespearean, with the family, all the people taking over the kingdom,” said Michael Medavoy, a producer who knows Mr. Redstone. “It’s a tragedy. But my question is, is it a tragic comedy or is it a tragic drama?”
After Judge David J. Cowan of Los Angeles County Superior Court tossed the case last Monday, Ms. Herzer filed a new lawsuit against Ms. Redstone. There is talk that Mr. Redstone’s lawyers may pursue a suit, too, meaning the situation could drag on.
Mr. Redstone has long been known for his volatility. Across the decades, he has collected enemies the way residents in nearby Malibu pick up sea glass along Carbon Beach. The executives he has crossed include Tom Freston, David Geffen, Mel Karmazin and Barry Diller. In 2006, he split with Tom Cruise over the actor’s erratic behavior and stumping for Scientology, ending Mr. Cruise’s production deal at Paramount. (The star got some measure of revenge with his caustic, over-the-top portrayal of a character said to be based on Mr. Redstone in the Hollywood satire “Tropic Thunder.”)
“He was a self-made man,” Mr. Medavoy said. “But those guys can be difficult. You have to look at it all in context. The great scions of industry, the guys who made a zillion dollars, are tough guys. Those folks don’t make a lot of friends.”
On a recent evening, Christine Peters was nursing a Moscow mule in the Tower Bar at the Sunset Tower Hotel in West Hollywood, Calif. Ms. Peters, a movie producer, dated Mr. Redstone in the late 1990s and remained friends after he moved to the Beverly Park mansion in 2003. She said she had not seen the twice-divorced tycoon in two years.
Despite his position, Mr. Redstone was not a creature of the scene, she said. He avoided galas and opening nights, preferring intimate dinners at Dan Tana’s, the dimly lit, old-school Italian place on Santa Monica Boulevard with red-leather booths, waiters in black bow ties and bartenders in red three-button jackets. If she arrived late for a meal, Ms. Peters said, she would find him alone and impatient, drumming his fingers on the table.
Mr. Redstone, who was badly burned in a 1979 hotel fire in Boston, did not like to show weakness, Ms. Peters said, and his closest personal relationships seemed transactional, rooted in business. But his devotion to his empire seems to not have given him much protection against hits taken in the recent imbroglio.
“He would rather be broke than humiliated and publicly embarrassed, his dignity lost,” Ms. Peters said. “Calling him a ‘living ghost’ is the most hurtful, saying he could not make lucid decisions. That’s where the knife hits hardest for him.”