NEW YORK — Martin Davis, former media baron and chairman of Paramount Communications, died of a heart attack Monday evening in New York City. He was 72.
Davis started his career in 1947 as an office boy at the New York headquarters of Samuel Goldwyn Prods. In 1958, he moved to the old Gulf+Western conglomerate, which owned Paramount. A tough and decisive executive, Davis eventually took the company’s helm from its founder and Davis’ mentor, Charles Bludhorn.
In the 1980s Davis initiated a sweeping restructuring and asset sale that left Gulf+Western with a core group of media and entertainment holdings. He changed the company’s name to Paramount in 1989 — the same year Davis made headlines by launching a hostile bid for Time Inc.
A gruff man, Davis was well cast to play the “bad guy” role for Bludhorn, his longtime boss. Davis also served as a key strategist for Bludhorn’s many battles with the FCC and other regulatory agencies. In these battles, Davis’ extensive background as a publicist helped him greatly.
It was under Davis’ rule that the most fabled management regime in studio history was dismantled. A fierce negotiator, Davis lost the services of Michael Eisner, Barry Diller and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Diller went on to 20th Century Fox while Eisner and Katzenberg moved to Disney.
He also sat on the board of RJR Nabisco and was part of a committee overseeing that company’s highly publicized leveraged buyout by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts in 1988.
Paramount itself became the object of a bidding war in 1993 after inking a merger agreement with Viacom. Barry Diller’s QVC Network put up a counteroffer, prompting a full-fledged auction that Viacom won.
“Martin Davis was an outstanding corporate strategist whose insights helped transform Paramount into one of the great companies of its day,” Viacom chairman and CEO Sumner Redstone said in a statement.
Davis stepped down when Paramount and Viacom merged in 1994 but remained a member of the board of directors of National Amusements, Viacom’s parent company.
Most recently, Davis was a managing partner of Wellspring Capital Management, a private investment firm formed in 1995.
A New York native, Davis resided in Westport, Conn. He is survived by his wife Luella and son Philip.