May 26, 1949
Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA
Actor, Back-up singer, Writer, Secretary
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kevin Evans, Richard Pryor
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Actress Pam Grier was a 1970s pop culture icon thanks to a string of roles as tough and sexy heroines in such blaxploitation classics as "Coffy" (1973), "Foxy Brown" (1974) and "Sheba, Baby" (1975). A statuesque figure who radiated confidence and determination, she surpassed the exploitative bonds of the genre to establish herself as the first black female action hero and box office draw. Grier struggled to surpass the limitations of her early screen roles, but a revival of interest thanks to the home video boom brought her back to films in the '80s and '90s. Unabashed fan Quentin Tarantino paid homage to her screen persona with "Jackie Brown" (1997), which led to a long-overdue career boost; she was soon tackling substantive roles in the Showtime series "The L Word" (2004-09) and reaping the rewards of a career forged in hard work and determination. She remained an enduring symbol of female empowerment at its funkiest and most ferocious.
Pamela Suzette Grier was born May 26, 1949 in Winston-Salem, NC, one of three children by Clarence Ransom Grier, an Air Force mechanic and technical sergeant, and wife Gwendolyn Samuels, a nurse. Her father's career kept the family in constant transit, with most of her adolescence spent in Europe; the period was made equally difficult by her father's strict house rules, which were rooted in military discipline. When Grier was 14, the family settled in Denver, CO, where she experienced difficulty in connecting with children her own age. She found some solace in high school plays, but never once considered acting as a career. Grier instead settled on medicine as a career, and attended Denver's Metropolitan State College to pursue her degree. Tuition costs forced her to seek money via beauty pageants, and in 1967, she participated in the Miss Colorado Universe contest in hopes of landing the prize money. She did not win, but caught the eye of Hollywood agent David Baumgarten, whose clients included Rowan and Martin of "Laugh-In" (NBC, 1967-1973). She initially declined his invitation to come to Los Angeles, but the urging of her mother, combined with her growing disinterest in medicine and the sudden and tragic death of a boyfriend in Vietnam, persuaded her to head West to seek her fortune and a new life.
Grier arrived in Los Angeles in 1967 and began working as the switchboard operator for Baumgarten's Agency of the Performing Arts while taking acting classes. Film roles proved elusive, though; she would not appear on screen until 1970 when she was virtually part of the background for a party scene in exploitation director Russ Meyer's first studio effort, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" (1970). Grier, in the meantime, had gone to work as the switchboard operator for American International Pictures (AIP), one of the leading producers and distributors of low-budget genre films in Los Angeles. After introducing herself to the company's leading director, the legendary Roger Corman, she began making small appearances in some of their raunchy, Filipino-lensed women-in-prison films, including "The Big Doll House" (1971), "Women in Cages" (1971) and "The Big Bird Cage" (1972). The films were pure exploitation that required Grier to do little more than look good in little to no clothing; one, an "Island of Dr. Moreau" knock-off called "The Twilight People" (1973), cast her as a half-panther woman with no lines at all. She did, however, get a chance to show off her singing voice by warbling the song "Long Time Woman" in "Big Doll House."
But Grier stood apart from most of the B-actresses and softcore talent that populated AIP's output. Though grindhouse audiences were immediately drawn to her movies because of her physical beauty and voluptuous frame, she displayed a degree of confidence and grit that shone through even the crassest of screen roles. Corman and AIP chief Samuel Z. Arkoff seemed keenly aware of her film presence, and began casting her in pictures that played to those qualities. "The Arena" (1973) was a sword-and-sandal period piece with Grier as a fierce African warrior, while "Black Mama, White Mama" (1972), co-penned by Jonathan Demme, was an updated revamp of "The Defiant Ones" (1958), with Grier and Margaret Markov as black and white prison escapees who must work together to survive. Both were decent-sized hits on the drive-in circuit, but her next film served as both her breakthrough role and the epitome of her early screen persona.
"Coffy" (1973) was an urban crime drama inspired by the success of such films as "Shaft" (1971) and "Superfly" (1972). The difference came with the casting of Grier in the lead. Prior to "Coffy," no black action film was driven by a female star. Director Jack Hill, who had previously worked with Grier on "The Big Doll House," was an eclectic figure in the low-budget market whose previous work included such indefinable films as "Spider Baby" (1964). He proved to be the ideal filmmaker for the project by working loosely within the genre's requirements while devoting more time to character and story development than most exploitation directors. The result was an ultra-gritty revenge film with Grier as a hard-working nurse who systematically tracks down and destroys the mobsters who led her juvenile niece into drug addiction. Grier's title character enjoyed a great degree of complexity than the average B-movie role; she was sympathetic, sexy, ruthless and altogether driven in her goal to right some essential wrongs. Audiences flocked to see the film, which made her a rarity among actresses in the 1970s - a performer whose presence guaranteed box office results.
For the next few years, Grier played variations on "Coffy" in film after film for AIP. Few could match the vitality of the energy, with most requiring her to look good in revealing outfits or handling a gun (or both). "Foxy Brown" (1974), a semi-sequel to "Coffy," was the best of the lot, but one would be hard pressed to distinguish "Sheba, Baby" (1975), "Friday Foster" (1975) and "Bucktown" (1975) from each other. Though the films were generating attention from mainstream audiences - Grier found herself on the covers of both Ms. and Playboy at one point - she was tiring of the repetitive nature of the roles, as well as AIP's requirements of nudity and violence. By 1977, she had abandoned the exploitation gristmill to try her hand at mainstream features.
She found what she was looking for in "Greased Lightning" (1977), a solid drama about the life and career of NASCAR pioneer Wendell Scott, the first black stock car racing champion. Though the film was only a minor success, she received solid notices as the romantic interest for the film's lead, Richard Pryor, with whom she had a brief but torrid affair. A small role in "Roots: The Next Generations" (ABC, 1979) seemed to indicate that she was on the path to a mainstream career, but the momentum quickly sputtered out. Grier had turned down numerous roles in order to focus on less exploitative films, but the projects simply never arrived. Undaunted, she bided her time by focusing on developing her other talents, including singing.
The death of a longtime friend, soul singer Minnie Ripperton, sent Grier into a depression that drove her to return to acting as a means of coping with her grief. She told her agents to find her more demanding roles. They found it in "Fort Apache, The Bronx" (1981), a harrowing police drama about a New York City police station struggling to contend with a wave of violence and racial unrest. Grier played a homicidal, drug-addicted prostitute who murders a pair of rookie policemen in the film's opening moments. Grier sunk deeply into the role, losing considerable weight and stripping away her natural glamour to play the debased role. It won her high praise from critics, and seemed to indicate a return to form.
Grier gave outstanding performances in her next films, including the mysterious Dust Witch in Jack Clayton's adaptation of Ray Bradbury's dark fantasy "Something Wicked This Way Comes" (1982) and Bruce Dern's lover in the underrated sports drama "On the Edge" (1985). Unfortunately, none of these efforts made much of a dent at the box office. Again, Grier buckled down and turned to television for work, where she enjoyed mature and substantive roles on series like "Crime Story" (NBC, 1986-88), which cast her as an investigative journalist. There were also occasional film parts, such as Steven Seagal's partner in his first and best film "Above the Law" (1986). Grier also worked frequently on stage, including a Los Angeles production of Sam Shepard's "Fool for Love" which won her a NAACP Image Award in 1986. During this period, Grier also endured and survived a bout with cancer that at one point was declared terminal by her doctors.
Meanwhile, the arrival of VHS and DVD brought Grier's AIP films back for rediscovery from her old-school admirers and a new generation of fans; characters like Coffy and Foxy Brown were quickly adopted by the hip-hop movement as iconic heroes, with one female rapper choosing the latter as her own musical nom du song. The revival of interest in Grier led to minor roles in several films by cult movie-minded directors: Tim Burton reunited her with another blaxploitation icon, Jim Brown, in his sci-fi satire "Mars Attacks!" (1996) while John Carpenter turned her glamorous image on its ear by casting her as a transsexual mobster in "Escape from L.A." (1996). However, one of her most devoted followers, Quentin Tarantino, gave her the role that revitalized her career while paying homage to her screen past.
Grier had auditioned for a role in Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" in 1994, but lost it to Rosanna Arquette. The director, who had committed many of her 1970s films to his vast memory, encountered her a year later and told her that he had a project for her that would be her first starring role in over 20 years. "Jackie Brown" was an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel Rum Punch that was tailored directly to Grier, including a change in the lead character's race from white to black. The quirky crime drama also referenced Grier's AIP films in numerous oblique ways, from its funky one-sheet to the abundance of soul and R&B songs that dotted its soundtrack. Though shoulder to shoulder with an all-star cast that included Robert De Niro, Michael Keaton and Bridget Fonda, Grier was singled out for considerable praise, as was her co-star, Robert Forster, another '60s and '70s survivor favored by Tarantino. Grier received numerous honors for her performance, including a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award nomination, and found herself finally in demand from the powers in Hollywood. An Emmy nomination for her voiceover work in "The Empress' Nightingale," a 1999 episode of HBO's culturally diverse animated series (1995-2000), brought her additional acclaim.
For the next decade, Grier worked almost constantly in a wide variety of projects that ranged from weekly series to arthouse films. Many of these roles were tough authority figures, like her detectives in Jane Campion's "In Too Deep" (1999) or the black comedy "Jawbreaker" (1999), or a U.S. attorney in several episodes of "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC, 1999- ). But she earned critical praise and one of six Image Awards in the 1990s and 2000s as a savvy call girl in "Linc's" (Showtime, 1988), a smart, underrated comedy from actor-producer Tim Reid about a Washington, D.C. diner. And for six years, she played Kate "Kit" Porter, mother hen to the diverse group of women that populated Showtime's "The L Word" (2004-09). A nightclub owner who struggled with her own sexuality as well as issues of alcoholism and motherhood, the role was perhaps one of Grier's best in her lengthy career. In 2010, she enjoyed a recurring role as Agent Amanda Waller, one of D.C. Comics' most accomplished super-villains, on "Smallville" (The WB/CW, 2001-2010).
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