Dawn Steel, the trailblazing studio executive and producer who broke through Hollywood’s glass ceiling to become president of production at Paramount Pictures and subsequently president of Columbia TriStar Pictures, has died. She was 51.
Steel, who had been diagnosed with a brain tumor in April 1996, died Saturday night at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where she had been hospitalized for the past three weeks, family spokeswoman Nancy Willen said.
On Sunday afternoon, a group of Steel’s closest friends — industry heavyweights like Jeffrey Katzenberg, Amy Pascal, Lucy Fisher and Lynda Obst — gathered to pay their respects at the home she shared with her husband, Charles Roven, and the couple’s 10-year-old daughter, Rebecca.
Katzenberg said he and Steel had grown up in the business together.
“She was a determined tornado with a lot of passion and no room in her life for the words ‘no’ or ‘it can’t be done,’ ” said Katzenberg, who first worked with Steel on “Star Trek — The Motion Picture” two decades ago. “The slogan on that movie was ‘To go where no man’s gone before’; she just changed it to ‘woman’ and made it her motto.”
Working her way up from positions in merchandising, Steel became part of the Barry Diller/Michael Eisner production regime at Paramount Pictures in the early ’80s and ably echoed their management style.
A believer of the high-concept credo that made Paramount so successful under Diller and Eisner, she also adhered to the team’s heavy-advocacy manner of championing projects, which often led to highly combustible confrontations.
Held her own in Hollywood
She more than held her own in the Hollywood shark tank, where she earned sobriquets such as “Steelie Dawn,” but complained that her reputation was blown out of proportion because of Hollywood’s entrenched misogyny. Steel later admitted that her hot-tempered approach was born of insecurity and that perhaps she was trying to be one of the guys. Her demeanor and appearance — she was a redhead with an impressive coiffure — gave rise to the term “power hair.”
By the time she joined Columbia in 1987 to become the first woman president of a Hollywood studio, she had mellowed somewhat. Steel lent the troubled studio an air of stability, preparing the company for its sale to Sony, for which she was amply rewarded.
Citing obligations to her husband and daughter, she then opted for indie producer status, first at Disney and then at Turner Pictures, turning out, most notably, the surprise hit “Cool Runnings” for Disney.
Steel was often compared to early Hollywood moguls who hailed from retail or wholesale roots. She had first gained notoriety by marketing “Gucci” toilet paper, inspired by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione. She said that dubious distinction would dog her no matter what pinnacle of success she would later achieve.
She was born Dawn Spielberg in 1946 in Manhattan, though her family soon moved to Little Neck on Long Island. Her father, a zipper salesman, changed his name to Steel, fearing that the Army wouldn’t purchase wares from a Jew; he had been known in weight-lifting competitions as “The Man of Steel.”
After dropping out of Boston U., she took secretarial positions, landing at the sports-book house Stadia Publishing. She was promoted to researcher and tried to compile football statistics by attending games in the Giants press box at Yankee Stadium, only to be banished to a separate area because she was a woman.
For the next few years she worked at Penthouse magazine in various capacities, working her way up to merchandising director. She convinced such mainstream bastions as Kmart and Montgomery Ward to feature products from the X-rated magazine.
In 1975, she struck out on her own with a company called Oh Dawn!, featuring the toilet paper with the Gucci emblem. The Italian designer sued. When she divorced her first husband, Ronnie Rothstein, in 1978, she abandoned Oh Dawn!
‘Star Trek’ tie-ins
With the help of her attorney, she landed an interview with Paramount’s merchandising department in Los Angeles. She first came to Eisner’s attention when she successfully mounted a major merchandising campaign around the first “Star Trek” picture. She even convinced Coca-Cola and McDonald’s to tie in to the film’s debut.
Since the film had come in way over budget, the merchandising coup helped defray expenses somewhat, leading to an offer from Eisner to move into production under division president Don Simpson in 1980.
She soon learned to navigate the treacherous waters of studio production and in 1982 fought strenuously for a greenlight on “Flashdance,” which would be produced by departing production head Simpson and partner Jerry Bruckheimer. Its success marked her as a comer. When Eisner, Diller and production presi-dent Katzenberg left in 1984, Steel became only the second female production head in studio history — the first being Sherry Lansing — under the studio’s new chairman, Frank Mancuso.
Col TriStar came calling
Due to clashes with studio president Ned Tanen, Steel ankled in 1987, despite such notable successes as “The Untouchables,” “Fatal Attraction” and “The Accused.” The offer of an independent production deal suited her until Columbia TriStar studio president Victor Kaufman came calling.
Columbia, then owned by Coca-Cola, was in trouble. An 18-month stint by former producer David Puttnam at its head had been disastrous and the soft drink giant was intent on selling the studio. Steel was a player and would give Columbia the air of being back in the game.
As president of the studio, she became the highest-ranking female studio executive ever. Duties for TriStar were folded in soon thereafter. Sequels to “Ghostbusters” and “The Karate Kid” helped boost the studio’s market share and paved the way for a sale to Sony in 1989 — for which Steel reaped a reported $7 million for her two years’ work.
Produced ‘Cool Runnings’
Though she remained for a time after Jon Peters and Peter Guber were handed the studio chairmanship reins, Steel was soon eased out. In 1990, she joined Eisner and Katzenberg at Disney, but this time as an indie producer. After wrangles over “Cool Runnings,” which was postponed, shelved and finally made, her relationship with Disney faltered. Ironically, “Cool Runnings,” about a Jamaican bobsled team, which was completed after her departure, became a major hit.
“She should get a great deal of the credit for the huge number of women in big jobs in the movie business,” said Nora Ephron, who worked with Steel on several movies. “She brought a lot of women to the table with her. She was not the kind of powerful woman who wanted to be the only woman in the room.”
Obst, who got her first producing deal from Steel, told Ephron Sunday that Steel had “come out of the boys’ club and created the girls’ club.”
Steel also produced the concert “For Our Children,” benefiting pediatric AIDS for the Disney Channel in 1993, and published her memoirs, “They Can Kill You, But They Can’t Eat You,” through Simon & Schuster. Steel also was active in Democratic Party politics in California.
Steel and her husband were the founders of Atlas Pictures, berthed at Turner Pictures. Their first effort, “Angus,” was a disappointment. Atlas then produced “12 Monkeys” and the forthcoming pics “Fallen,” starring Denzel Washington, and “City of Angels,” with Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage.
In Steel’s memory, the Steel Roven Family Cancer Research Fund has been established through the Neurosurgical Institute at Cedars-Sinai.
Funeral services will be private, although a memorial service is planned for early January.
Steel is survived by her husband, her daughter and a brother, Larry Steel of New YorkCity.