This motion picture executive rose through the ranks of merchandising and production to become the first woman to head a major film studio (topping Sherry Lansing, who was the first woman to head the production division of a major studio) and was briefly the most powerful woman in Hollywood.
After varied career starts--as a sportswriter for MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL DIGEST and secretary at PENTHOUSE magazine, Steel parlayed her marketing skills into positions as editor and merchandising director for the skin magazine and later headed her own merchandising company, O'Dawn!, where she created such novelty items as Gucci toilet paper.
Steel entered the motion picture industry via a merchandising and licensing post in the late 1970s at Paramount, where she made her name with a spectacular pitch for marketing tie-ins for the first "Star Trek" film. A protege of Paramount head Barry Diller, versed in his aggressive "tough guy" management style, Steel fiercely championed the project "Flashdance" (1983), which turned into a surprise box-office hit and fueled her ascent through various vice presidencies to the top job as president of production. There she green-lighted the commercial hits "Footloose" (1984), "Fatal Attraction" and "Beverly Hills Cop" (both 1987).
By 1987, Steel had earned the monikers 'Steel Dawn' and 'The Tank' because, as producer Daniel Melnick said, "She would just lower her head and charge through all the red tape and bureaucracy. She's the most determined woman in the business." She was offered the job of running the crisis-ridden Columbia Pictures in 1987, replacing David Puttnam. As president during Coca-Cola's ownership of Columbia, Steel was in charge of production, marketing and distribution of all Columbia Pictures product adding responsibilities for Tri-Star in 1989. She oversaw marketing on Rob Reiner's "When Harry Met Sally" (1989) and Amy Heckerling's runaway hit "Look Who's Talking" (1990), and green-lighted Mike Nichols' "Postcards From the Edge" (1990) and Penny Marshall's Oscar-nominated "Awakenings" (1991). Steel resigned in 1990 at the time of Sony's purchase of Columbia and entered into an exclusive, long-term production agreement with Disney. "Cool Runnings" (1993), a whimsical and surprisingly successful comedy based on the trials and tribulations of the Jamaican bobsled team, was her first Disney film as a producer.
After her second film, the sequel "Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit" (1993), Steel left Disney, citing lack of artistic freedom ("I couldn't even give a lecture without their approval"). Steel detailed her exploits in Hollywood in the memoir "They Can Kill You . . . But They Can't Eat You: Lessons From the Front". With her husband Charles Roven and Bob Cavallo, she formed Atlas Entertainment in 1994, signing a first-look deal with Turner Pictures (Turner Pictures folded in 1996, though Atlas continues to produce). The first film under that new arrangement was the small but critically applauded "Angus" (1995), a coming-of-age opus about a young footballer and his eccentric family. Among her final credits for Atlas are the crime thriller "Fallen", starring Denzel Washington, and the romance "City of Angels" (both 1998), starring Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage. Steel succumbed to a brain tumor in December 1997.