|Born||Dawn Leslie Steel
August 19, 1946
The Bronx, New York U.S.
|Died||December 20, 1997
Los Angeles, California U.S.
|Other names||Steel Dawn
New York University
|Occupation||Film studio executive
|Notable work||They Can Kill You But They Can't Eat You|
(1985-1997; her death)
Dawn Leslie Steel (August 19, 1946 – December 20, 1997) was one of the first women to run a major Hollywood film studio, rising through the ranks of merchandising and production to head Columbia Pictures.
Steel was born in the Bronx, New York to Nathan "Nat" Steel (ne Spielberg), a zipper salesman to the military and semi-professional weight lifter called the "Man of Steel," and Lillian Steel (née Tarlow), also an electronics executive. She grew up in Manhattan and "in a crummy neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracks" in Great Neck, New York, according to her autobiography. She had one sibling, a brother, Larry Steel.
Both of her parents were of Russian Jewish descent. When she was 9 years old, Steel's father suffered a nervous breakdown, so her mother was the family's full support.
Steel attended the School of Business Administration at Boston University from 1964 to 1965, but left due to money problems. She attended New York University from 1966 to 1967, studying marketing, but did not graduate.
In 1968, Steel worked as a sportswriter for Major League Baseball Digest and the NFL in New York.
In 1968, after starting out as a secretary, Steel became merchandising director for Penthouse.
In 1975, she founded a merchandising company that produced novelty items such as designer logo toilet paper called Oh Dawn! Inc. One of the products she created was Gucci-logo embellished toilet paper. Within months the Gucci family sued Steel for copyright infringement. Steel hired attorney Sid Davidoff, a former top aide to Mayor John Lindsay. The case was in the news as "toilet paper caper" and "spawned an editorial cartoon portraying the Gucci family as Goliath battling poor little Dawn Steel as David." The case was settled out of court.
In 1978, Steel moved to Los Angeles, working as a merchandising consultant for Playboy.
In 1978, Steel sold her interest in the Oh Dawn! merchandising business to her ex-husband and asked Davidoff to place a call to Hollywood. Davidoff made an introduction to Richard Weston, who ran Paramount Pictures' merchandising unit. In 1978, Steel joined Paramount Pictures as Director of Merchandising and Licensing, where she planned marketing tie-ins for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. She was promoted to Vice President, and then Vice President of Production in 1980, Senior Vice President of Production in 1983. She was a protege of Barry Diller, CEO of Paramount during a golden age for the studio.
After becoming President of Production at Paramount in 1985, Steel was responsible for the making of Flashdance, her first hit film. She then greenlit Fatal Attraction, Footloose, Beverly Hills Cop, and Top Gun amongst others. She became vice president of production in 1980 and production chief in 1985. Steel was the second woman to head a major film production department (the first being Sherry Lansing at Twentieth-Century Fox and the third being Nina Jacobson at Buena Vista).
Steel became president of Columbia Pictures in 1987. She was the first woman studio head. Under her tenure the studio released When Harry Met Sally which had been developed and produced independently by Castle Rock productions. Steel's brief two-year tenure was marked by continued turmoil and losses, continuing a string of bad news begun under David Puttnam before her appointment. She was asked to leave the studio in 1989 and shortly thereafter Coca-Cola spun off the studio and exited the movie business; Columbia was thereafter sold to Sony Corporation of Japan. She resigned from this position on January 8, 1990.
In 1990, Steel formed Steel Pictures in a production deal at The Walt Disney Company. She left Disney in 1993 after making two films, 1993's Cool Runnings, a comedy about the Jamaican bobsled team, and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. Cool Runnings was her first Disney film as a producer.
In 1993, she wrote a memoir, They Can Kill You But They Can't Eat You, which described her time at Columbia. In the book Steel describes finding out -- after giving birth to her daughter -- that she was fired as President of Production at Paramount.
On Steel's legacy: Nora Ephron said: "Dawn certainly wasn't the first woman to become powerful in Hollywood, but she was the first woman to understand that part of her responsibility was to make sure that eventually there were lots of other powerful women. She hired women as executives, women as producers and directors, women as marketing people. The situation we have today, with a huge number of women in powerful positions, is largely because of Dawn Steel."
Steel's "skill as an executive was sometimes overshadowed by a reputation for an abrasive, take-no-prisoners style," which also meant she had the monikers "Steel Dawn" and "The Tank".
Her career at Paramount as Chief of Production was referenced in the HBO series, Entourage, in the Season Three (2006) episode "What About Bob?", when fictional producer Bob Ryan asks Ari Gold if Dawn Steel will still be working there, to which Ari replies "Bob, Dawn Steel died nine years ago."
In 1989, Steel was awarded the Women in Film Crystal Award for outstanding women who, through their endurance and the excellence of their work, have helped to expand the role of women within the entertainment industry.
Steel's father changed the family surname from "Spielberg" before her birth. The name Steel was chosen to reflect her father's "prowess as a semi-professional weight lifter."
In 1975, Steel married, Ronnie Rothstein, a former business partner in the Oh Dawn! merchandising company. She dated young struggling actor Richard Gere in 1975 and director Martin Scorsese (after his divorce from Isabella Rossellini) in 1983.
Works and publications
- Steel, Dawn. They Can Kill You but They Can't Eat You: Lessons from the Front. New York: Pocket Books, 1993. ISBN 978-0-671-73833-4
- Steel, Dawn. They Can Kill You but They Can't Eat You. New York: Simon & Schuster AudioWorks, 1993. ISBN 978-0-671-86555-9. Audio book read by the author (cassette format).
- Taylor, John (29 May 1989). "Bright as Dawn Strong as Steel: The Most Powerful Woman in Hollywood". New York. Retrieved 7 February 2015.
- Weinraub, Bernard (22 December 1997). "Dawn Steel, Studio Chief And Producer, Dies at 51". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 February 2015.
- Dutka, Elaine (22 December 1997). "Dawn Steel, 1st Female Studio Chief, Dies at 51". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 7 February 2015.
- Smith, Kyle (12 January 1998). "Dawn of An Era: Hollywood's Old Guard Deferred to Dawn Steel". People. Retrieved 7 February 2015.
- "Dawn Steel". Find A Grave. Retrieved 7 February 2015.
- "Dawn Steel - Biography". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 7 February 2015.
- "Nat R Steel - United States Public Records". FamilySearch. Retrieved 7 February 2015.
- Easton, Nina J. (30 October 1988). "Tough as Steel : Columbia Pictures' President Runs Her Studio With the Style of Hollywood's Old-Time Moguls". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 7 February 2015.
- Harmetz, Aljean (16 April 1985). "Paramount Appoints New Production Chief". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 February 2015.
- Van Gelder, Lawrence (30 October 1987). "At the Movies: Dawn Steel to Columbia". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 February 2015.
- Harmetz, Aljean (9 January 1990). "Dawn Steel Quits Columbia Pictures Post". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 February 2015.
- Weintraub, Bernard (30 August 1993). "Dawn Steel Muses From the Top of Hollywood's Heap". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 February 2015.
- Maslin, Janet (22 September 1993). "Books of The Times; Ups and Downs and Ups Of Life in Hollywood". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 February 2015.
- "Past Recipients - Crystal Award". Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards. Retrieved 7 February 2015.
- "Dawn L Steel - mentioned in the record of Charles V Roven and Dawn L Steel". FamilySearch. Retrieved 7 February 2015.
- "Rebecca Steel Roven - California, Birth Index". FamilySearch. Retrieved 7 February 2015.
- "Dawn L Steel - California, Death Index". FamilySearch. Retrieved 7 February 2015.
- Ehrman, Mark (10 April 1998). "Stars Are Out for 'Angels,' Dawn Steel". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 7 February 2015.