Studio Chief Dawn Steel Loses Battle with Cancer

Dawn Steel, widely regarded as one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, died Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, succumbing to brain cancer at the age of 51.

Steel was the former head of production at Paramount Pictures, where she produced such blockbusters as Fatal Attraction and Top Gun. Shortly after she left Paramount in 1987, she was named president of Columbia Pictures, a position she held for 2 1/2 years. During her reign at Columbia, the studio produced hit films like Postcards from the Edge and Awakenings.

Steel left Columbia in 1990 to form her own production company, Atlas Entertainment, with her husband, Charles Roven. Their daughter, Rebecca, is 10 years old.

Steel was a Bronx native who grew up in New York City and, in her words, "a crummy neighborhood" in Whites Plains, NY. She attended Boston University for a year until running out of money, and studied marketing at New York University for two years. Before moving west, she worked as a receptionist in New York's garment district and as a marketing rep for Penthouse magazine.

After arriving in LA in 1978, she joined the marketing department at Paramount, and six years later became head of production. Industry heavyweights like Disney's Michael Eisner and SKG DreamWorks' Jeffrey Katzenberg were big Steel supporters. Katzenberg told the press Sunday that Steel's "strong personality and take-no-prisoners approach" helped rocket her to the top. "She was an exhilarating personality to be around, enthusiastic and exuberant," Katzenberg said.

Writer Nora Ephron said one of Steel's big contributions to the film industry was her insistence on promoting other women into positions of power. "She hired women as executives, women as producers and directors, women as marketing people," Ephron said.

Steel herself attributed her success in a male-dominated industry to the fact that men felt comfortable around her: "I was funny . . . I made them laugh and entertained them." But her real talent was her ability to recognize a good idea. "Not a lot of people can do that. That was my gift," she said in 1993.