Dawn Steel

Dawn Leslie Steel (August 19, 1946 – December 20, 1997) was an American film studio executive and producer. She was one of the first women to run a major Hollywood film studio,[1] rising through the ranks of merchandising and production to head Columbia Pictures in 1987.[2][3][4]

Dawn Steel
Dawn Leslie Steel

(1946-08-19)August 19, 1946
The Bronx, New York, United States
DiedDecember 20, 1997(1997-12-20) (aged 51)
Los Angeles, California, United States
Other namesSteel Dawn
The Tank
Alma materBoston University
New York University
OccupationFilm studio executive
Film producer
Years active1979–1997
Known forFlashdance
Top Gun
Fatal Attraction
Notable work
They Can Kill You But They Can't Eat You City of Angels
Spouse(s)Ronnie Rothstein
Charles Roven
(1985–1997; her death)
Parent(s)Nat Steel
Lillian Steel

Early lifeEdit

Steel was born to a Jewish family[5] in the Bronx, New York to Nathan "Nat" Steel (né Spielberg), a zipper salesman to the military and semi-professional weight lifter called the "Man of Steel,"[6] and Lillian Steel (née Tarlow), a businesswoman.

Lillian Tarlo Steel, Dawn's mother, died from lung cancer at age 55. She was the daughter of Nathan and Rebecca Tarlo, Polish immigrants. She had two brothers named Abraham and Paul. Their name became spelled T-A-R-L-O-W when Abraham joined the US military during World War I. Paul and Abraham's children reside in NYC And Georgia, while Lillian's children live in California.[7]

Dawn grew up in Manhattan and in Great Neck, New York,[8] according to her autobiography. She had one sibling, a brother, Larry Steel.

Both of her parents were of Russian-Jewish descent. When she was nine years old, Steel's father suffered a nervous breakdown, so her mother was the family's sole support.[4]

Steel attended the School of Business Administration at Boston University from 1964 to 1965, but left due to financial problems.[2] She attended New York University from 1966 to 1967, studying marketing, but did not graduate.[7]


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.[4] One of the products she created was Gucci-logo embellished toilet paper. Within months the Gucci family sued Steel for trademark infringement.[9] Steel hired attorney Sid Davidoff, a former top aide to Mayor John Lindsay.[9] The case was in the news as "toilet paper caper" and was the subject of an editorial cartoon.[9] The case was settled out of court.[9]

In 1978, Steel moved to Los Angeles, working as a merchandising consultant for Playboy.

Paramount PicturesEdit

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.[9] 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, who was CEO of Paramount at the time.

After becoming president of production at Paramount in 1985,[10] Steel was responsible for the making of Flashdance, (1983) her first hit film. She also oversaw Top Gun (1986), Fatal Attraction (1987), and The Accused (1988), amongst others.[3] 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).

Columbia PicturesEdit

Steel became president of Columbia Pictures in 1987.[11] 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.[12]

Independent producingEdit

Steel PicturesEdit

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.[13]

Atlas EntertainmentEdit

In 1994, Steel formed Atlas Entertainment with husband Charles Roven and Bob Cavallo. They had a three-year first look deal with Turner Pictures. Her final two films before her death from cancer were Fallen and City of Angels.


In 1993, she wrote a memoir, They Can Kill You But They Can't Eat You, which described her time at Columbia.[14] In the book Steel describes finding out – after giving birth to her daughter – that she was fired as President of Production at Paramount.[14]


In her obituary for The New York Times, 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 many 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.[2]

Steel's 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 whether Dawn Steel would still be working there, to which Ari replies: "Bob, Dawn Steel died nine years ago."[citation needed]


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.[15]

Personal lifeEdit

Steel's father changed the family surname from "Spielberg" before her birth. The name Steel was chosen to reflect her father's weightlifting career.[2]

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.[2][4]

In 1985, she married film producer Charles Roven[16] with whom she had a daughter, Rebecca Steel Roven, in 1987.[2][17]


In April 1996, at age 49, Steel was diagnosed with brain cancer and ultimately died on December 20, 1997,[3][18] after a 20-month battle against the disease. Her film City of Angels was dedicated to her memory.[19]


All films, she was producer unless otherwise noted.


Year Film Notes
1992 Honey, I Blew Up the Kid
1993 Cool Runnings
Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit
1995 Angus Final film as a producer
1998 Fallen Posthumous credit
City of Angels Posthumous credit


Year Title Credit Notes
1993 For Our Children: The Concert Executive producer Television special

Works and publicationsEdit

  • 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 OCLC 31007903
  • Steel, Dawn. They Can Kill You but They Can't Eat You. New York: Simon & Schuster AudioWorks, 1993. Audio book read by the author (cassette format). ISBN 978-0-671-86555-9. OCLC 28867741

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Taylor, John (May 29, 1989). "Bright as Dawn Strong as Steel: The Most Powerful Woman in Hollywood". New York. Retrieved February 7, 2015.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Weinraub, Bernard (December 22, 1997). "Dawn Steel, Studio Chief And Producer, Dies at 51". The New York Times. Retrieved February 7, 2015.
  3. ^ a b c Dutka, Elaine (December 22, 1997). "Dawn Steel, 1st Female Studio Chief, Dies at 51". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 7, 2015.
  4. ^ a b c d Smith, Kyle (January 12, 1998). "Dawn of An Era: Hollywood's Old Guard Deferred to Dawn Steel". People. Retrieved February 7, 2015.
  5. ^ The Independent: "Obituary: Dawn Steel" by Tony Sloman December 24, 1997
  6. ^ "Dawn Steel". Find A Grave. Retrieved February 7, 2015.
  7. ^ a b "Dawn Steel – Biography". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved February 7, 2015.
  8. ^ "Nat R Steel – United States Public Records". FamilySearch. Retrieved February 7, 2015.
  9. ^ a b c d e Easton, Nina J. (October 30, 1988). "Tough as Steel : Columbia Pictures' President Runs Her Studio With the Style of Hollywood's Old-Time Moguls". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 7, 2015.
  10. ^ Harmetz, Aljean (April 16, 1985). "Paramount Appoints New Production Chief". The New York Times. Retrieved February 7, 2015.
  11. ^ Van Gelder, Lawrence (October 30, 1987). "At the Movies: Dawn Steel to Columbia". The New York Times. Retrieved February 7, 2015.
  12. ^ Harmetz, Aljean (January 9, 1990). "Dawn Steel Quits Columbia Pictures Post". The New York Times. Retrieved February 7, 2015.
  13. ^ Weintraub, Bernard (August 30, 1993). "Dawn Steel Muses From the Top of Hollywood's Heap". The New York Times. Retrieved February 7, 2015.
  14. ^ a b Maslin, Janet (September 22, 1993). "Books of The Times; Ups and Downs and Ups of Life in Hollywood". The New York Times. Retrieved February 7, 2015.
  15. ^ "Past Recipients – Crystal Award". Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards. Archived from the original on July 24, 2011. Retrieved February 7, 2015.
  16. ^ "Dawn L Steel – mentioned in the record of Charles V Roven and Dawn L Steel". FamilySearch. Retrieved February 7, 2015.
  17. ^ "Rebecca Steel Roven – California, Birth Index". FamilySearch. Retrieved February 7, 2015.
  18. ^ "Dawn L Steel – California, Death Index". FamilySearch. Retrieved February 7, 2015.
  19. ^ Ehrman, Mark (April 10, 1998). "Stars Are Out for 'Angels,' Dawn Steel". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 7, 2015.

External linksEdit