The real Logan Roy: inside billionaire Sumner Redstone’s Succession drama
As the final series of Succession gets under way, speculation about who will take over from ageing patriarch Logan Roy as boss of the Waystar Royco media empire will reach fever pitch.
Will it be either of his sons Connor, Kendall or Roman, or his daughter Shiv? Perhaps he’ll opt for a more distant relative such as Shiv’s estranged husband Tom or hapless cousin Greg? Or even a non-family member like Waystar executive Gerri Kellman or – heaven forbid – streaming upstart Lukas Matsson?
The ending of the HBO show is, of course, being kept under wraps. But anyone who has been following the serpentine saga of the real-life family on whom the Roys are partially based may feel as though they have an insight. The story of late tycoon Sumner Redstone is almost stranger than fiction, as was the battle over who would succeed him to run his CBS, Paramount and Viacom empire in the run-up to his death in 2020, aged 97 and with a net worth estimated at $2.6bn.
Look away now if you don’t want to know who won. It was Shari, Redstone’s daughter. A Shiv by any other name. And a recent book called Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Hollywood Media Empire by James B. Stewart and Rachel Abrams lays bare just how knotty and Succession-y the Redstone tale became towards the bitter end, describing it as an “astonishing saga of sex, lies and betrayal”.
Let’s go back to basics. Are we wrong to draw parallels between these two families? Could this merely be coincidence? Well, no. Succession writer Jesse Armstrong confirmed in 2021 that the Redstones were an influence for the Roys (even more so that the Murdochs, who people often assume are the blueprint). Other influences include the Disneys and the Maxwells, Armstrong said.
And compare the jacket of the Unscripted book with the publicity shot for the fourth series of Succession. They’re essentially identical. Six heir-apparents sit around a board table, three either side, with the gruff paterfamilias looming over the head of the table (in portrait form in the case of the book and in ‘real-life’ form in the case of the Succession shot).
Even the subjects’ postures are almost the same. Unsure of which came first – the book cover or the publicity photograph – I tracked down the designer of Unscripted’s jacket, Justin Metz. The book’s publisher Cornerstone Press asked him to pastiche the Succession image, he says. It’s life imitating art imitating life.
Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and Sumner Redstone are cut from the same cloth. Both are (or were) brilliant, sweary dealmakers who came from humble beginnings. “Why are you so mean to people?” Redstone’s former girlfriend Christine Peters once asked him, according to Unscripted. “I don’t care. I’m going to hell anyway,” he replied in a line that could have come straight from the mouth of Logan Roy.
Both men were torn between love for their family and love for the media empire they’d created. And both knew hardship. Sumner, whose business started as a chain of mainly drive-in cinemas, was nearly killed in a hotel fire in 1979; he had third degree burns on 45 per cent of his body. Logan Roy, meanwhile, has nasty scars on his back due to being beaten by an uncle as a youngster. Roystones, meet the Roystones. They’re the modern media family.
Before we draw further parallels between the clans, let’s briefly remind ourselves of what happened in the last series of Succession. Kendall (Jeremy Strong) went renegade and attempted to take over the family business. When Shiv (Sarah Snook) failed to convince high-powered lawyer Lisa Arthur to represent the family – because Arthur was already representing Kendall – a furious Logan appointed non-family member Kellman (J. Smith-Cameron) as his company’s interim CEO in order to humiliate Shiv, who was given a more lowly job instead.
Kendall subsequently changed his mind and asked to be bought out so he could turn his back on his father’s empire for good. In the series, Logan would tease Shiv, dangling the prospect of her being The Chosen One in front of her before seemingly cooling on the idea. When Shiv and her siblings learned that their dithering father planned to sell the company without their input, they fought back. In the children’s subsequent argument with Logan, he savagely mocked and belittled Shiv.
Much the same happened in the Redstone family, according to Stewart and Abrams’s book. Consider this paragraph about Shari’s relationship with Sumner: “Shari’s relationship with her father was, to put it mildly, complicated. Over the years, she 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.” Sound familiar? And how about this? Sumner would “belittle her in meetings” and be “dismissive of her ideas”. He’d brandish the “prospect of a much bigger role for [Shari] at his companies, even promising to name her as his successor” (which he did, but only in a chairperson role and not a more powerful chief executive one).
Meanwhile Sumner’s son Brent, who maintained that he had been stripped of meaningful responsibilities at the family company, forced his father to agree to buy his stake in the company (in 2005). Brent vowed never to speak to his father again, Stewart and Abrams write. The parallels are everywhere.
But Shari’s real battle, as outlined in the book, came more recently when the capricious Sumner’s two live-in girlfriends looked all-set to take total control of his empire, circumventing his family entirely. At the end of Succession’s third series, Logan Roy was likewise about to get rid of the company without his family’s input (but to another business). Given the comparable tramlines that both families seem to travel down, could the resolution to the Redstone saga give the biggest clue about how Succession will end?
Sumner’s live-in companions, Sydney Holland and Manuela Herzer – dubbed “S&M” by Shari – came extremely close to taking control of Redstone’s empire, according to the authors. Things fell apart, however, when Sumner discovered in 2015 that Holland had had an affair with a former soap actor called George Pilgrim. The family subsequently took back control (although Holland and Herzer had benefitted hugely from Sumner’s largesse). With the pair out of the picture, Shari was able to look after the family empire. However she still had to deal with the all-powerful figure of Leslie Moonves, the then-chief executive of CBS. Moonves objected to Shari’s plans to merge the two family-controlled businesses, Viacom and CBS, and bitterly fought it. Things got nasty. “You are seeing a great company in a civil war and there are bodies all over the road,” Moonves said in 2018.
But Moonves was undone in July 2018 when journalist Ronan Farrow wrote a New Yorker article in which six women alleged that Moonves had sexually harassed them. The year before, Farrow had broken the story about film mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct. In September 2018, as the #MeToo movement gained pace, Moonves stepped down from CBS. He denied the “appalling accusations” levelled at him but said that he’d had consensual relations with three of the women in question. With Moonves gone, Shari’s path was clear.
In August 2019, Viacom and CBS were merged into a single company called ViacomCBS with Shari as its chair. Sumner died the following summer, having seen his daughter take the helm of the company he loved. According to Unscripted, as the businessman lay dying, Shari reviewed his life’s accomplishments to him down a phone placed near him by a nurse. She promised to nurture the empire he’d created. “It will be here forever,” she told her father, according to Stewart and Abrams. “I love you,” she said repeatedly.
In February 2022, ViacomCBS changed its name to Paramount Global and last summer Shari pulled a substantial rabbit out of her hat. Paramount released Top Gun: Maverick, which grossed almost $1.5bn worldwide and became the highest-grossing film of Tom Cruise’s career. The release strategy was decidedly old school. Top Gun: Maverick opened exclusively in cinemas, giving the entire bums-on-seats-in-actual-cinemas sector a boost after it was nearly decimated by Covid. It was a move that her father – who coined the phrase “multiplex” – would have been proud of.
So does this mean that Shiv will win, and that Succession will end with her telling a dying Logan how much she loves him? Possibly. Having not seen it, I genuinely don’t know. Equally, of course, it may mean the complete opposite. Succession’s writers may feel that the Redstone story is too obvious a parallel and that Shiv should be the last person to inherit Waystar Royco. Perhaps the final cruel twist in this epic saga is that art won’t imitate life after all.
Series 4 of Succession begins at 2am/9pm on Sky Atlantic and NOW on Monday March 27