Pam Grier
Pam Grier

The life and career of the notorious Pam Grier.

Once hailed as the “baddest one-chick hit squad that ever hit the town” Pam Grier is, today, perhaps most recognized for her role as Kit Porter on Showtime’s The L Word. But long before Kit was serving up chai tea lattes at The Planet, Grier was busy kicking ass and blazing trails for women in film and TV. Having forged a career out of playing strong, sexy, savvy ladies who buck oppression and refuse to be put in their place, Grier has carved out a space for herself in both pop culture and feminist history. And the real Pam Grier? Well, let’s just say—Foxy Brown ain’t got nothin’ on her!

Although born in the United States, Grier was an Air Force brat who spent most of her youth living on military bases in England. Grier recalls that in Europe, the colour of her skin did not translate into inequality. Having been sheltered from racial discrimination, Grier was shocked when she returned home at 14 to live in Denver that the buses refused to stop for her and her mother.

At 18, in an effort to generate college tuition funds, Grier entered a beauty pageant. The only African American contestant, Grier knocked out the competition and caught the eye of a Hollywood agent, who brought the budding star to Tinsel Town. Soon after, while working as a switchboard operator at American International Pictures, the striking Grier again caught the eye of someone who would further her career. In this case, it was the B-movie king himself, Roger Corman. Corman cast her in his women-in-prison film Black Mama, White Mama. While the film itself is forgettable, Grier’s innate “it-girl” quality meant that her turn as the black mama was just the beginning.

In 1973, Roe v. Wade was won, bras were ablaze and Billie Jean King kicked Bobby Riggs’ booty all over the tennis court. At drive-ins and movie houses everywhere, audiences were introduced to a legend in the making: Pam Grier in her iconic role as the revenge-fueled nurse Coffy, in the blaxploitation film of the same name.

Following the success of the film, the statuesque star appeared in a series of payback-themed flicks, including Foxy Brown and Sheba, Baby. In each, she represented the ultimate independent woman, free of any man’s control. And while these films have become cult favourites and pop culture touchstones of the ’70s, studio executives at the time were not confident that the female revenge formula would be bankable.

“When they first saw Coffy,” explained Grier in a 1975 cover story interview with Ms. magazine, “No one thought it would make any money. They said it was too depressing, that the character was too strong and too serious. So, they cut it up—taking out the most important scenes…So all you see is: bang, bang, shoot ‘em up, tits and ass, bang, bang, bang. But they kept saying, ‘People will love it now.’ ”

Growing up in the era of blaxploitation, director Quentin Tarantino remembers in an interview with Charlie Rose the impact Grier had in these early films, saying, “She really owned a spot for women, in the ’70s with those films that America had really never seen before or since.”

A dubious guilty pleasure, Grier’s early films—which bore all the hallmarks of the genre—were packed with violence, sex, zingy one-liners, fierce jumpsuits and feisty catfights. One notable altercation in Foxy Brown takes place at a lesbian bar where Foxy shows one unlucky patron what it means to have a black belt in barstools.

However, the prize for best all-female smackdown (quite possibly ever) goes to Coffy, in which hair is pulled, breasts are exposed and razorblades—tucked into Coffy’s carefully coifed ’70s mega mullet—exact their vicious revenge.

What may be surprising to some is how these films, and Grier herself, were embraced by feminists—so much so that she was the first African American to grace the cover of Ms. In the article, “The Mocha Mogul of Hollywood,” Jamaica Kincaid explains how that could be. “Coffy, Foxy Brown and Sheba, Baby have one outstanding redeeming value—they are the only films to come out of Hollywood in a long time to show us a woman who is independent, resourceful, self-confident, strong and courageous. Above all, they are the only films to show us a woman who triumphs!”

To Grier, it was also a matter of timing, “Coffy and Foxy Brown are women of another time, literally exalting and experiencing the goals [won] from the women’s movement…It’s OK for them to be independent. It’s OK for them to not be dependent on a man for validity,” explained Grier.

As the ’70s—and the era of blaxploitation—came to an end, Grier kept busy with a series of roles in B movies and made guest appearances on television in The Love Boat and Night Court. She also took the time to develop as a character actor, most notably in the Paul Newman film Fort Apache, the Bronx (1981), in which she showed off her acting chops with her turn as a homicidal junkie prostitute. However, a star vehicle continued to elude her.

In 1988, she appeared to be on the verge of a comeback. Having just wrapped Above the Law with action sensation Steven Seagal (remember, it was the ’80s), she was dealt a shocking blow: She was diagnosed with stage-five cancer.

Believing she was in excellent health, Grier was in for her regular annual check-up when her physician discovered the condition. “Your life hits a wall,” said Grier. “You’re going to die—you’ve got less than two years. Get your will in order. Start telling your family members…your life is changing, as of this moment.” The diagnosis summoned the memory of Grier’s sister, whom she had lost to breast cancer. “Her religion wouldn’t let her have surgery. She was a Christian Scientist and she died horribly.”

Having immediately begun treatment at Cedars-Sinai, Grier recounted the surreal experience of encountering fans in the hospital, “There [are] bracelets for every division—radiology, chemo—all up and down [my] arm and…they don’t even see that [I’m] an inpatient. They see [me] as the icon.”

While in the hospital Grier suffered a second loss. “My lover at the time abandoned me,” she recalled. “He didn’t show up. He refused to return my phone calls, my clothes, my things…[It] was so painful. It’s like, one day you’re madly in love with a person and you live with them for three years and [the next] they, like, get up from the table and walk away…Are you going to survive this? Cut your wrist? What are you going to do?”

She did what she always did: Pam Grier rallied. And she was not alone, both her family and her friends came to her support (including Miami Vice creator Michael Mann, who wanted to sneak her downstairs for a ride in his Ferrari).

Grier laughs as she recalls the time Peter Douglas—brother of Michael Douglas—arrived in her room and hosted an impromptu party for her and her mother. “He showed up with a blender and some margarita mix and a bottle of tequila, and they got drunk. And when they turned their backs, I had some, too. ‘Pam, you have alcohol on your breath?’ ‘No.’ Because I can’t have Demerol and alcohol. I was having double shooters.”

Having successfully beaten cancer with a combination of chemotherapy and Eastern medicine, Grier picked up the pieces and got back to work, continuing to appear in minor TV roles, including a recurring character on Crime Story and Miami Vice and a guest appearance on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

With a gift for picking films destined to be cult hits, Grier also landed a few small but memorable parts on the big screen: in the homicidal mean girl opus Jawbreaker, John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A. and Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks.

In 1997, she found herself back in the limelight in the title role of Quentin Tarantino’s homage to blaxploitation, Jackie Brown. The film introduced Grier to a new generation of fans and put her back on the map as a marquee actor.

At the time, Tarantino was coming off the massive success of his film Pulp Fiction, which had catapulted the all-but-forgotten John Travolta back to stardom. Aware that the press would draw parallels with his casting decisions for Jackie Brown, Tarantino made his reasons for choosing her plain.  In an interview with Charlie Rose, he recalls saying to her, “Now look—a lot of people are going to come to you and they are going to start talkin’ this John Travolta business and everything, and you can’t pay any attention to any of that, all right? This is not about that. This is about you being the perfect actress to play this role and that’s why you’re getting cast. Not because you won some ’70s revival contest.”

In actuality, Grier’s playing the title role was a foregone conclusion; while adapting the screenplay for Jackie Brown from Elmore Leonard’s book Rum Punch, Tarantino intentionally tailored the role to be a perfect fit for Grier, including changing the character from white to black and changing the last name from Burke to Brown, as a nod to Foxy Brown.

The film—which many consider being Grier’s best work—cast her alongside Robert De Niro, Michael Keaton and Robert Forster, as well as Samuel L. Jackson, who, in an interview with US magazine, remembered Grier fondly from her early films. “I hadn’t thought of her as all those [characters she played] until one day when we were doing a scene and I had my hands on her throat, [and] I realized: Oh, my God, I’m about to choke Foxy Brown!”

Grier may have reaffirmed her icon status with the success of Jackie Brown, but it wasn’t until 2004 that she became a bona fide dykon by taking a chance on a risky Showtime project, The L Word.

Grier plays the part of Kit Porter, an ex-alcoholic and former ’80s musician turned coffeehouse-club owner who is the half-sister of  Bette, Jennifer Beals’ character. While primarily hetero, Kit is frequently dismissed as the “straight one.” However, in both her brief relationship with Drag King Ivan Aycock, played by Kelly Lynch and a botched one night stand with Papi, Kit explores—and underscores—the fluidity of sexuality, which is a recurring theme in the series. She also provides an alternative body type to the waifish L.A. glamazons for fans to admire (and drool over).

As Kit, Grier depicts yet another woman living a life unshackled from the limitations that previous women struggled against. Her character is free to pursue her dreams to be a musician and, like Grier herself, is a by-product of the feminist movement. “Kit was living [and] experiencing all of the things that her mother and her contemporaries had opened up doors for,” says Grier.

While the feminist aspects to the role were familiar to Grier, when it came to the LGBT community, Grier explained why starring in The L Word was an eye-opening experience. “It used to be ‘us and them,’ and it’s now ‘ours,’ so I now have a different perspective, and great respect for the education [I received] just from doing The L Word. It has just been the most magnificent experience—not only as an actor, but also learning the social and political context.”

When the series came to an end, Grier expressed her disappointment that they wouldn’t be able to pursue storylines exploring how far women still have to go in many parts of the world.

“We had a lot more stories to tell, and I think we could have gone on, easily, two more years. I think we could get into other countries [where] women’s oppression is still evident…and [women can] still be put to death because of being gay or lesbian.”

But for Grier, the hardest part of the series coming to a close was saying goodbye to the castmates with whom she’d formed such close bonds. She’d become a bit of a den mother to the cast, in particular to actor Kate Moennig, who Grier jokes is her love child with actor Christopher Walken. “Don’t let me loose on that man! An egg will find its way,” laughed Grier.

But unofficial den mother or not, Grier still found time to play, “I had my Wii set up in [my trailer]. Daniela [Sea] and I would be in there and everyone else would be out there working and we’d just be rocking that trailer, laughing and screaming, playing tennis.”

And it was on the set that Grier trained her sights on her next project: a memoir. During a conversation, Jennifer Beals suggested that Grier writes about her experiences. “I had to do the book of my life, about everything I’ve done and survived. Good, bad, right and wrong.”

Unsurprisingly, Grier had little trouble convincing publishers, and the book is due to come out later this year. She believes the story of how she saved the life of a wounded horse by rushing it to the vet—in the back of her yellow Jaguar—closed the deal.

At the time, Grier was engaged to and living with comedian Richard Pryor, when his beloved horse was attacked by dogs. “[Richard] was in the road, crying, hysterical. And I said ‘We’re going to get this horse to the vet.’ So we opened the four-door and pulled him into the back seat, and ripped down [Interstate] 405 to the vet in Sherman Oaks,” Grier recalled, laughing. “People following us [were saying], ‘There are two black people, one’s in a bathrobe with a big afro [and] there’s a horse in the back seat of a Jaguar.’ Yes, I am crazy, I am going to save a life. I don’t care about the car.”

Though Quentin Tarantino once referred to the actor as “the queen of women,” and many consider her to be a living legend (although she is too modest to consider herself one), Grier is content to be seen as an artist trying to make a difference. “When people respond to me and are passionate about my work for such a long time, I am humbled by the fact that they like what I do, that they share my passion with me.”