Making small talk with Sumner Redstone in the penthouse suite of Claridge's Hotel, it is easy to forget who he is. The tall 78-year- old has the appearance of a friendly uncle, immaculately presented in a crisp monogrammed shirt. He speaks quietly, punc- tuating conversation with a cheeky smile.
But once you are lulled into a sense of cosy security, he launches into Mr Red- Blooded Corporate America. It's like switching from a nature programme to music television. "I have always been obsessed with the desire to be number one. I am a driven person," he explains.
Mr Redstone is the boss of Viacom, the media company he has built up through a series of audacious and sometimes aggressive takeovers. He is clear what has made him one of the world's most powerful men: "I want to beat everyone."
Few people in the western world can have remained immune to what the self-styled "Mr Viacom" has produced. Companies under his control include MTV, Paramount Pictures, CBS, Blockbuster and Nickelodeon, helping to make Mr Redstone a billionaire six times over.
Now this wealthy American has published his autobiography, A Passion to Win, and "A larger than life figure in the grand tradition of the Hearsts, Paleys and Pulitzers" is just one of the superlatives written on the sleeve of the book. Just how big is this man's ego?
Mr Redstone says Simon & Schuster, the publisher and a Viacom company, hasn't changed a word in the book, but denies that ego drove him to write it. "My friends suggested that the story of Sumner Redstone, who was born in a tenement and created Viacom, was worth telling. I actually paid no attention to them. But then Simon & Schuster said that people would gain something by reading it and they really convinced me," he says. "Ego is not a word I would use in connection with what I do."
Mr Redstone arrived in Britain for the interview by private jet. "It was huge, it had 14 windows," whispers Simon & Schuster's PR executive before I am ushered in to meet Mr Redstone. But he insists he isn't motivated by materialism. "Money has no special significance to me. The only material desires I have are staying in a great hotel, eating in a great restaurant and having good friends."
So what is it that keeps him going when most men of his age would be happy spending their days on the golf course?
It is obvious, of course. The answer is written in gold writing across his book. "A passion to win," he says with a smile.
Mr Redstone has chosen an industry where it is tough to be number one. Viacom faces challenges from AOL Time Warner, Disney and News Corp. And for the crown of main media mogul, Mr Redstone has a mighty rival.
"I do admire Rupert Murdoch. He lives his business." Do you want to beat him? "Yes." At what? "At everything," he says. "I have always wanted to be number one in my job and to be number one you have to be ahead of Rupert Murdoch."
Mr Redstone grew up in poor neighbourhood in Boston. His early years were spent in a tenement block which had no toilet, but he says he never realised he was less privileged than others.
He started his career in law, working at the US Court of Appeals after serving during World War II cracking Japanese military and diplomatic codes. His big break into media came when he moved to National Amusements, a cinema company where in 1967 he became chief executive.
But in 1979 his life was turned upside down. Mr Redstone was staying at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston on business. In the middle of the night he awoke to the smell of smoke. Investigating, he opened the door and was engulfed in flames. Mr Redstone was, as he describes in his book, being burnt alive. He ran to the window and jumped on to a ledge, where eventually he was rescued by the fire brigade. He suffered third-degree burns to 45 per cent of his body and doctors said he was lucky to be alive.
"I never talk about the fire," he says. "I don't even think about it these days unless it comes up in conversation, so the hardest part was writing about it."
Mr Redstone says the fire didn't change his outlook on life, but his professional life took off after the near-death experience. He staged a series of audacious and bloody battles to take control of Blockbuster, Paramount and Viacom. And finally he staged the more civilised takeover of CBS.
Along the way he has picked up many tale, and he adopts his friendly uncle persona to tell them. His first meeting with the late media baron Robert Maxwell in 1991 is a good yarn. "I can remember it like it was yesterday. I never saw such arrogance in a man. It was as though he was looking down at this little guy and my little company, Viacom."
The meeting was in Mr Maxwell's "extremely pretentious" dining room in his London office. "I knew he was not the sort of person I wanted to see when he said: `You know what, if I were to walk down the streets of Japan with a beautiful woman, then it will be all over the press. If you did it, no one would care.' "
But he adds that shortly after this meeting, the shoe was on the other foot. Mr Maxwell was sitting in Mr Redstone's office in New York, negotiating to sell 50 per cent of MTV Europe. "I knew he needed money and we capitalised on this," says Mr Redstone, grinning widely.
He paid $62m (pounds 44m) for Mr Maxwell's stake, which today is worth billions.
Today, Viacom is in rude health. Its revenues and profits are at record levels and Mr Redstone is mapping out a new strategy for growth. He sees new revenues coming from outside the US and says MTV is the vehicle to achieve that. The music channel reaches 340 million homes worldwide, but he sees further potential in Asia and South America.
A fan of Frank Sinatra and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Mr Redstone admits to occasionally watching MTV. "I like its sensuality," he says.
MTV has built a strong presence on the internet. But Viacom's critics say the company has been slow to embrace the web. Mr Redstone, who originally coined the phrase "content is king", reveals that before AOL entered discussions with Time Warner, the internet firm had approached Viacom. "I'm now always being asked about [doing a deal with] Yahoo!, but I say `no'. We don't need to buy or be owned by an internet company to get all the advantages of the internet."
There are, however, some parts of Viacom's business that could be threatened by the internet. One is Blockbuster, the video rental company. If video- on-demand", where internet users can down- load films from the web, takes off then the video rental market could suffer.
Mr Redstone is sceptical about the technology, but says he won't be left behind if video-on-demand does become popular. "I will tell you this: Blockbuster will be at the centre of it."
A more pressing concern is the global economy. With the slowdown in the US, there are already signs of companies cutting back on ad spend. Some 50 per cent of Viacom's revenues are from advertising. But Mr Redstone claims to have this covered, too. "Let me tell you that one of our great advantages is that we have all these different [media] platforms. So we have an opportunity to cross sell." He says companies like Procter & Gamble have already taken advantage of this.
At the age of 78, Mr Redstone is regularly being asked when he will retire. How long can he go on?
"Forever," he quips. "This is my first autobiography. I'm just beginning, not ending. I work harder now than I have ever done in my life."
But he says: "I guess that it will happen some day." For Mr Viacom, this is the biggest concession possible.
t Sumner Redstone was born in 1923 in Boston. His father, Max, was a linoleum salesman and his mother looked after Sumner and his younger brother, Edward.
t He studied at Boston Latin School, graduating to Harvard.
t He served during World War II in the Military Intelligence Division. After the war, he was a law secretary with the US Court of Appeals and then served as special assistant to the US Attorney General.
t In 1954 he joined National Amusements and became chief executive in 1967.
t In 1979 he survived a savage fire at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston.
t Undeterred, Mr Redstone went on the acquisition trail, buying Blockbuster, Paramount Studios and Viacom. In 1999, he shook hands on the $37.3bn acquisition of CBS. The deal was relatively smooth as CBS had approached Viacom, and its boss, Mel Karmazin, conceded the chairmanship of the enlarged company.
Mr Redstone on...
t Power. "I don't think power corrupts men. I think some men corrupt the use of power. We have the power at Viacom to affect millions of people all over the world."
t Rupert Murdoch. "He overpaid for everything."
t Robert Maxwell. "I never saw such arrogance."
t On doing deals. "There's always a feeling of accomplishment. I think that the tougher the battle the more the satisfaction."…