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

December 22, 1997|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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