Dawn Steel, 1st Female Studio Chief, Dies at 51


Dawn Steel, the scrappy, shoot-from-the-hip college dropout who shattered Hollywood's glass ceiling to become the industry's first female studio chief, died at Cedars-Sinai Hospital Saturday night after a 20-month battle with brain cancer. She was 51.

Arriving in Los Angeles in 1978, Steel made a name for herself in the marketing department of Paramount Pictures where, six years later, she was named head of production. After overseeing movies such as "Top Gun," "Fatal Attraction" and "The Accused," she left the studio in 1987. Shortly thereafter, Steel was appointed president of Columbia Pictures--a position that made her the most powerful woman in the film business.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder of DreamWorks, on Sunday remembered his first meeting with Steel in the late '70s. "Her strong personality and take-no-prisoners approach left an impression," he said. "She just was an exhilarating personality to be around, enthusiastic and exuberant, a can-do-anything effervescent personality. To be in her presence was to make life exciting."

In the entertainment industry, Katzenberg said, "she was known as someone who had a very strong point of view. Smart, talented people respected that and respected her for it. Less secure and less talented people were threatened by it."

Steel spent 2 1/2 years running Columbia, where she oversaw movies such as "Awakenings" and "Postcards From the Edge," before leaving in 1990 to become an independent producer. She later concluded that she preferred the hands-on creative process to the bureaucratic, if heady, confines of the executive suite. "You don't resign from those jobs--you escape from them," she told The Times when she left Columbia. "I felt like I was let out of a cage."

Known for Armani suits and her mane of tawny hair, she was likened to a "lioness perusing the plains below" by producer Lynda Obst, a close friend.

"I had never met a woman with the same kind of overt ambition as a man," Obst wrote in her book "Hello, He Lied--and Other Truths From the Hollywood Trenches." "It never occurred to Dawn to hide her intentions under a bushel."

Initially Not a Feminist

Steel climbed the ladder when high-powered women were a rarity in the entertainment industry, yet didn't initially consider herself a feminist. Painting herself as one of the boys, she eventually acknowledged that sexism was a fact of Hollywood life.

"A woman in that [studio chief] job is a lightning rod for criticism and judgment . . . and I got my share," she told The Times in 1993.

That year, Steel wrote "They Can Kill You But They Can't Eat You," a self-described "primer for the Melanie Griffith character in 'Working Girl,' " which landed her on the cover of New York magazine. Full of adages drawn from experience ("You can only sleep your way to the middle," "You're not free in life until you're free of wanting other people's approval"), she hoped it would motivate others born without money or social connections.

The book was directed not only at "women wanting to get off the receptionist's desk" but at women who "want to be valued for cherishing their roles as mothers," she said. Her biggest psychological transformation, she once said, was from the "male to the female."

Some, anticipating a tell-all tract, accused the producer of pulling her punches, soft-pedaling in her assessment of the town and its players. Others saw it as a reflection of a gentler Dawn Steel. Since 1985, she had been married to arbitrageur-turned-producer Charles Roven ("12 Monkeys") with whom she had formed a production company, Atlas Entertainment. Their daughter, Rebecca, was born in 1987.

Sherry Lansing, head of Paramount Studios and a close friend in recent years, remembered sharing three-hour lunches one Saturday every month. "We used to talk a lot about life and how the most important things in the world were your family and friends," Lansing said Sunday. "She had an incredible value system and perspective on what was important."

Lansing also said Steel provided an "incredible role model for women everywhere."

"She had phenomenal success in her life," Lansing said. "But she got more and more successful as she got a greater sense of balance and of what was important."

Steel showed her mettle, too, after she was diagnosed with brain cancer. "There was such an incredible courage and guts about her. She was a fighter and she fought with dignity," Lansing said. "I've never in my life seen anyone braver."

Steel was a throwback to Hollywood's founding moguls--tough, intermittently abrasive and lacking in formal movie-making training. ("I was not a film buff," she once said. "It wasn't until I saw 'Rocky' that I realized movies could affect people beyond mere entertainment.") Rules, she was convinced, were made to be broken. At her wedding, she broke a basic tenet of Jewish tradition by insisting that she, along with her husband, step on the wine glass.

Some of her closest friends said Sunday that because of Steel, Hollywood would never be the same. Not only did she usher in a sea change at studios by giving women an opportunity to wield power in the executive suites, but she unleashed the talents of countless women--and many men--in all facets of the business.

Because of Steel, her friends said, more women than ever are climbing the executive ladder. Today, they include Lucy Fisher, vice chairman of Columbia/TriStar; Amy Pascal, president of Columbia Pictures; Stacey Snider, co-president of production at Universal Pictures; Laura Ziskin, president of Fox 2000; Lindsay Doran, president of United Artists, and Buffy Shutt and Kathy Jones, co-presidents of marketing at Universal.

"It's sort of a revolution," said writer and director Nora Ephron. "It's hard to think of another industry that has moved that quickly. She was one of the first women who wanted to make sure she wasn't the only powerful woman at the table. She had a kind of generosity of spirit that extended completely into the way she did business. She was the first woman to call me and say, 'You should direct something' and she made my first deal to direct."

Emerged From 'Boys' Club'

Steel emerged from what was essentially the "boys' club" of male executives at Paramount Pictures and created a "girls' club," Obst said Sunday. "I don't think she did it for ideological reasons--she did it because they were talented. She took a lot of heat for women taking power. Having power in Hollywood at that time made men uncomfortable."

Pascal, who worked for Steel at Columbia in the late 1980s, called her a "great role model who taught me how to be a studio executive."

But Pascal said it was Steel's movie-making talents that made her a success. "She had what people call the 'golden gut,' " Pascal said. "She had incredible instincts for popular tastes because it was what she liked. She was completely unpretentious and really smart."

Humor, Steel believed, took the edge off her bite, helping her to function in a male-dominated world, but it was a trait not always on display. In 1988, her photo appeared on the cover of California magazine, which dubbed her the Queen of Mean in a story about "bosses from hell."

"Those [studio] jobs are so stressful and time-consuming that they bring out the worst in people," Steel told an interviewer in 1993. "I like myself a whole lot better today. I'm not nearly as obsessed as I was."

The lack of a college degree made Steel feel inadequate. "I felt more comfortable in TV than in the film world where the players were more erudite and intellectual," she said. In contrast to her hard-boiled image, she wrote in her book, she had "zero self-esteem."

Steel's father changed his surname from Spielberg, in deference to his semiprofessional weight-training prowess. A struggling zipper salesman, he suffered a nervous breakdown when Steel was a child. The family moved from Manhattan to the suburbs of Long Island where Steel became the pitcher on a softball team. Struggling financially after her father's illness, the family ended up in Great Neck on "the wrong side of the tracks."

Worked for Book Publisher

An uninspired student, Steel put in a year at Boston University before her tuition money ran out, then took classes at New York University's School of Commerce before dropping out. Starting as a receptionist for a garment industry company, she went on to work for a small sports book publisher. She tried her hand at sportswriting and--barred from Yankee Stadium's all-male press box--was given a press box of her own.

Steel then headed to the fledgling Penthouse magazine where publisher Bob Guccione made her director of merchandising. Telling her parents she was working for Mademoiselle, she came up with "slightly off-color" product ideas for the label.

In 1975, Steel imprinted toilet paper with the Gucci trademark--the staple of her new direct-mail company, "Oh Dawn Inc." The Gucci family sued for copyright infringement--a case that became a cause celebre in the New York press and was settled out of court. Coming off a 10-month marriage to businessman Ronald Rothstein, she wrote in her book, she felt depressed. Selling her share of the business to her husband, she had a friend hook her up with the Paramount Pictures merchandising unit in 1978.

Six months later, Steel was vice president of merchandising and licensing, where she was mentored by studio heavyweights Barry Diller, Michael Eisner, Frank Mancuso, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Don Simpson. During a marketing presentation for the trouble-plagued "Star Trek: The Movie" she made a splash by beaming herself and the cast onstage. Such initiative, fueled by lucrative deals with Coca-Cola and McDonald's, led to an appointment as vice president of feature production. Steel threw her weight behind "Flashdance," the sleeper hit that was her first produced movie. "Footloose," another movie championed by Steel, came soon after.

After a 1984 shake-up, Steel was named president of production, but Paramount's new management never embraced her appointment, she contended. While she was giving birth at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in 1987, Gary Lucchesi was appointed executive vice president at the studio--reporting directly to Paramount's motion picture president Ned Tanen. Steel considered the episode a "betrayal," she later wrote--a sign to the industry and herself that she been effectively replaced.

Steel left to become an independent producer, but when David Puttnam was ousted and Columbia offered her the title of president, she found herself back in the studio ranks. Steel was given control of marketing as well as production--a first in Hollywood for a woman. (From 1980 to 1983, Sherry Lansing, current Paramount Motion Picture Group chairwoman, served as president of production at Twentieth Century Fox.)

Steel's reign at Columbia drew mixed reviews. Hampered by a writers strike and the need to complete a host of esoteric films left by the iconoclastic Puttnam, it took her awhile to put her stamp on the job.

Once she got rolling, she brought in A-list talent like Michael Douglas and Madonna and, in contrast to Puttnam, adopted a relatively mainstream approach. Commercial fare such as "Ghostbusters II" was joined on the slate by off-center material such as "Flatliners" and "Awakenings." The epic "Lawrence of Arabia" was restored. But hits such as "Postcards From the Edge" and Castle Rock's "When Harry Met Sally . . ." were offset by disappointments like "School Daze" and "Revenge."

Sony took over the studio in September 1989 and Steel was asked to stay. But when it became clear that she couldn't work with new Columbia co-chairman Jon Peters, she cashed in a reported $7 million in stock and headed for Disney with a development deal. Passing on a chance to head up production at Turner Pictures in 1993, she came aboard as a producer instead.

Motherhood, she said, influenced her choice of projects. Disney's "Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit" (1993) told of a nun who became an inner-city music teacher, while the surprise hit "Cool Runnings" (1993) chronicled the real-life Olympic success of a Jamaican bobsled team. Turner's "Angus" (1995) dealt with adolescent self-esteem. (Her last two produced films will be released in 1998, "Fallen," a thriller starring Denzel Washington, and "City of Angels," a romantic comedy with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan, both for Warner Bros.)

Early Backer of Clinton

Steel's world later extended to politics. Nationally, she was one of the earliest industry supporters of Bill Clinton's candidacy--an occasional visitor to the White House who held a major fund-raiser at her Beverly Hills home. "We were born on the same day, the same year, and we have the same ball on the end of our nose," she said. "But it looks better on him." In December 1993, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan named her to head a new task force devoted to increasing local film production.

In 1990, Steel was asked what she would like her legacy to be--a question that gave her pause. Competing professional and personal demands shoot holes in the Superwoman myth, she said, so a note of pragmatism was called for:

"I'd like my epitaph to read 'Given the amount of time she had, she did the best job that she could.' "

DreamWorks co-founder David Geffen called Steel a "trailblazer" whose death has saddened all of Hollywood. "Everybody knew Dawn was struggling with a serious illness. Her friends and everybody who knew her are saddened by her loss. She was a bright light shining, and now it is gone."

In addition to her husband and 10-year-old daughter, Rebecca, Steel is survived by a brother, Larry, of New York. A private memorial service will be held Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the family said, and a larger service will be held after the first of the year.

Contributions may be made to the Steel-Roven Family Cancer Research Fund, in care of the Neurological Institute at Cedars-Sinai.

Times staff writers Robin Rauzi and Robert W. Welkos contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World