Pam Grier is an icon of Hollywood’s blaxploitation era, famous for her independence, martial arts skill, and incredible outfits. But there is so much more to know about her exciting, glamorous, and sometimes tragic life. Follow these facts as they tell the wild tale of one of the most groundbreaking and inspiring movie stars of the 20th century.
Pam Grier Facts
1. She Had Inauspicious Beginnings
Though Pam Grier is a larger-than-life figure, she has surprisingly normal roots. On May 26th, 1949, she started life as part of a regular, run of the mill family in Winston-Salem, Massachusetts. Her father was a serviceman who travelled for work, and her mother was a housewife. Neither of their professions could have hinted at Pam’s glamorous future.
2. She Developed A Lifelong Love
After moving around and even living in England for a time, Pam’s family finally settled in Denver, Colorado. As a young girl, Grier immediately fell in love with the city’s parks. She spent all her free time playing outside, creating a love of the outdoors So far, Grier’s childhood was picture perfect. But it wouldn’t stay that way for long.
3. She Suffered A Tragic Event
When Grier was only six years, she underwent a horrific trauma. A group of boys in her neighbourhood ganged up on her so that they could attack her and even sexually violate the young girl. Thankfully, a telephone repairman saw the attack and chased off the attackers, saving Grier from further suffering. However, the damage was done.
4. She Didn’t Tell Anyone
After the attack, Grier suffered in silence. She refused to tell anyone, even her own parents, about what had happened to her. Her reasons for staying silent were heartbreaking: Grier worried that her family would “hunt” the boys down as revenge, and that the whole ordeal would tear her family apart. With her decision made, Grier only revealed the truth decades later.
5. She Was Traumatized
After the attack, Grier may not have told her parents what happened, but she expressed her pain in other ways. She became incredibly self-conscious about her own body and refused to speak for long periods of time. When Grier did have to talk, she realized that she couldn’t express herself clearly anymore. She had developed an intense stutter.
6. Stardom Was Her Destiny
Despite her difficult experiences, Pam still grew up to become a pragmatic and realistic young woman. It never really occurred to her that she might make a bid for stardom. Instead, Grier enrolled in college, intent on becoming a doctor. But this future star couldn’t keep the limelight away, and soon her life would change forever.
7. Hollywood Courted her
While in college, Grier performed in plays and concerts, and competed in beauty competitions. Though she only became the runner-up in Colorado’s Miss Universe pageant, at least one person thought she should have won the tiara. A Hollywood agent spotted her at the pageant and tried to sign her. She ultimately refused but kept his number just in case. She must have known that she would need it one day.
8. Men Hurt Her
While Grier was busy attending classes and acting in plays, she was also occupied by a far less pleasant situation. When she was just 18 years old, she went on a date with a young man and fell victim to date rape. Like before, she didn’t tell her family, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t suffering. After the attack, Grier dressed down and intentionally tried to make herself look less beautiful in the hopes that if she weren’t attractive, she wouldn’t be a target.
9. Her Boyfriend Betrayed Her
After all this violence, Grier finally told someone what had happened to her. However, her revelation…didn’t go over well. After telling her long-term boyfriend at the time, he replied by saying that Grier was “tainted.” That’s so far from the right thing to say! It’s no wonder that, after this, Grier didn’t tell anyone else about her past for a very long time.
And on a lighter note, she had other things to do: Stardom was calling.
10. She Made A Big Move
On a visit to Los Angeles in 1967, Pam finally pulled out the agent’s business card and dialled his number. Soon enough, Grier was in LA…but her first job wasn’t exactly glamorous. While interviewing to become a switchboard operator, she lied and said she knew how to operate the tech. While she managed to teach herself to use a switchboard, thankfully Grier wouldn’t need to use those skills for long.
11. She Had Her First Doomed Romance
While working away on the switchboard and having her first background role in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Pam caught the interest of basketball star Lew Alcindor. Their courtship was swift and intense. They bonded over a shared love of Martial Arts films, watching the classic Seven Samurai more than twelve times together, but their love affair didn’t last long.
12. She Had An Ultimatum
You probably know Alcindor by another name. After he converted to Islam, he became the famous Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and evidently, he wanted Grier to share his passion for his new religion. On her 21st birthday, Abdul-Jabbar gave Grier an ultimatum. She could either convert by 2PM that day, or he would marry another woman.
13. She Turned Down A Legend
As hard as it was to leave her first big love, Pam Grier declined Abdul-Jabbar’s offer. She had other ambitions for herself and for her, the religion just wouldn’t work. She said no, and Abdul-Jabbar stuck to his word. He didn’t mean he’d marry someone else in general. He meant he was getting married at 2PM that day, and he already had a back-up bride in case Grier said no. Even in Hollywood, how many relationships end with that level of nutty?
14. She Landed Her First Role
The infamous B-movie director Jack Hill noticed Grier at her job as a switchboard operator. He immediately knew she was going places, so he asked her to audition for his next film, The Big Doll House. She won the lead role, worked hard on set, and soon enough, the movie was a success. Finally, Grier’s star was on the rise.
15. She Worked Hard
After her success in The Big Doll House, Grier shot five exploitation films in the next two years. The shoots were gruelling; she would often work 16 hour days for weeks on end, barely having time to eat meals. But Pam wasn’t delicate. She handled the workload like a champ. And just a few years later, she started to see her hard work pay off.
16. She Took The Lead
In 1973, Grier took on her first leading role as the heroine in the blaxploitation film, Coffy. She played Coffy, a nurse that seeks revenge on the dealers who enabled her sister’s habit. Coffy was strong, stylish, and assertive, all qualities that Pam herself embodied, and the audience loved it. Coffy was controversial, but it was also a bonafide hit.
17. She Made Cinema History
Fun fact for the movie buffs out there: One of Coffy’s most iconic traits is the place where she hides her weapons. Instead of using a bag or the pockets in her flared pants, Coffy takes storage solutions to another level. She stores her firearm in, of all places, her magnificent afro. Pam Grier came up with the idea and it instantly made B-movie history.
18. She Became An Action Icon
The success of Coffy made Grier a B-movie queen. And that wasn’t all: Coffy was a groundbreaking role in Hollywood at the time. For once, the woman was the hero and not just the love interest or the damsel in distress. With Grier’s groundbreaking performance, she gained a reputation for being just as tough and cool as any male action hero. And she had much better outfits!
19. She Met Her Next Man
While touring to promote Coffy, Pam met a man who would make an enormous impact on her life: Freddie Prinze. He was an actor and comedian who starred in the TV sitcom Chico and the Man. The couple fell for each other hard and fast. Before long, they even talked about getting married. However, that wouldn’t happen for a tragic reason.
20. She Lost Love
Sadly, this romance lead to another heartbreak. Prinze struggled with intense mental health and addiction issues and, over time, it became clear that Grier and Prinze just couldn’t make a romantic relationship work. However, this didn’t mean that they cut off all contact with one another. Instead, the opposite occurred. They stayed in touch, with Grier trying to help Prinze through his struggles.
21. She Threw Herself Into Work
Despite all this, Grier continued to work hard. She rode the success of Coffy towards her most iconic role yet. In 1974, she starred in Foxy Brown. Although critics did not love Foxy Brown, the audiences sure did. The film was another hit, and it cemented Pam’s status as the undeniable queen of blaxploitation. She became the first black woman to appear on Mrs magazine’s cover and her roles ushered in a new kind of black female character: the one assertive and self-determined woman.
22. Her Heart Broke
By 1977, Grier was used to supporting Prinze battled his demons. But one night that year, she received a call that even she couldn’t handle. Prinze called his friend Pam Grier in a distraught state and while he was under the influence. Grier tried her best to comfort him, but there was only so much she could do. She hung up the phone and hoped he would recover on his own. Unfortunately, she was wrong.
23. A Tragedy Struck
A few days after her emotional phone call with Prinze, Grier learned the horrific truth. She found out that, after struggling for years, Prinze had ended his own life. As the details about his passing emerged, Grier realized that she was one of the very last people who spoke to Prinze before his untimely end. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t mark Grier’s final relationship with a troubled man.
24. She Embarked On Another Relationship
Before Freddie Prinze’s tragic end, he introduced Pam to her next great love: the acclaimed actor and stand-up comedian, Richard Pryor. A few years later, Pam and Richard’s romance blossomed when they star in Greased Lightning together. They were a glamorous pair and turned heads on red carpets and at parties, but their relationship was far from picture-perfect behind the scenes.
25. She Became A Teacher
While Pam’s relationship with Pryor had its dark times, it also produced a lot of love and growth for the couple. Grier helped Pryor see his worth, which was no easy task given his struggles with depression and self-doubt. And that wasn’t all: Pryor was also illiterate and had to learn his lines by sounding them out. Grier stepped up and taught him to read. She also helped him in even more unexpected ways.
26. She Made A Scene
In her memoir, Grier described a wild afternoon where she had to transport Pryor’s injured mini-horse, Ginger, to the vet as fast as possible. Desperate to get the creature some help, she loaded it into the back of her yellow Jaguar Sedan and drove through LA traffic with Pryor in the passenger’s seat. In the end, Grier’s quick thinking saved Ginger. But after years together, Pam realized she wouldn’t be able to rescue Pryor in the same way.
27. She Had An Awkward Doctor’s Appointment
Pryor had struggled with addiction for years at this point, so when he relapsed after a few months of sobriety, Grier was disappointed, but not shocked. She became shocked when she went to the doctor’s office and learned that she had a very strange condition: A certain drug was found inside her private parts. According to the doctor, this was a sign that Pryor had applied the substance to his member before the couple got intimate. Can Pam pick ’em or can she pick ’em?
28. Her Partner Betrayed Her
Grier was, understandably, pretty upset when she heard this news. She marched up to Pryor and demanded that even if he wasn’t going to take care of himself, he couldn’t put her at risk. Pryor, however, didn’t like the sound of that. He refused to use protection. But even this wasn’t the breaking point in Grier and Pryor’s messy romance.
29. She Was Not Lucky In Love
Here’s when Pryor officially went too far. In 1977, while he and Grier were still in a serious relationship, he began an affair with another woman. Then, he impregnated his mistress. And then, to top it all off, he married her. Here’s the kicker: all of this happened while Grier believed that she and Pryor were still a couple. Oh, and somehow, they weren’t even done with each other yet.
30. Her Ex Had A Breakdown
Years after her breakup with Pryor, Grier received a startling phone call. Her ex was horribly injured and may not live for much longer. It turned out that while Pryor was incredibly high, he had covered himself in alcohol and lit himself on fire. In the hospital, he asked to speak with Grier. But when Grier got the call, she refused to go to his bedside. She had spent years trying to help Pryor and she couldn’t do it anymore.
31. An Era Ended
As Grier recovered from the end of one relationship, she also prepared to end another. She tried to move away from blaxploitation, which was falling out of fashion, and towards mainstream acting roles that would give her a new challenge. Unfortunately, Grier had a hard time rebranding as a serious actress.
It seemed, for a time, that stardom was slipping through her fingers.
32. She Still Made An Impression
But just because the roles weren’t as big, that didn’t mean Pam was going to go small. In fact, she made such an impact at her audition for Fort Apache, the Bronx, that Paul Newman gave her a standing ovation. She prepared by spending time on the streets and even abstained from showering or brushing her teeth for days before the audition. Grier had some fight left!
33. She Received Bad News
It would take all her fight to get through the next challenge life threw at her. In 1988, Grier’s doctors diagnosed her with stage four cervical cancer. The physicians told her the grim prognosis: she might only have 18 months left to live. They even suggested that she draft her will. At this point, Grier could have accepted her fate, but she dug deep to find hidden strength.
34. She Fought For Her Life
Grier decided to retreat to the one place where she felt at peace: the Colorado landscape. She moved back into the ranch she kept in Denver and spent months doing yoga, spending time outdoors and taking in as much rest and fresh air as she could. Evidently, her method worked. Soon, against the odds, Grier went into complete remission.
35. Her Boyfriend Was A Jerk
During this tough time, Grier had to endure painful chemotherapy sessions. Her boyfriend couldn’t accompany her to the first session, but swore that he would go to the second with Grier. Unfortunately, that was a bald-faced lie. According to Grier, he abandoned her so thoroughly that she didn’t see him for five long years.
36. She Made a Fateful Connection
When Grier walked into the audition room for a young filmmaker’s second film, she could not have anticipated what that meeting would ultimately lead to. She auditioned for a small role in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. And while he didn’t think her strong and independent spirit was right the shy role, he got to work planning something even bigger for Grier.
37. Tarantino Flips The Script
While working on the script for his next movie, based on an Elmore Leonard novel with a tough, clever heroine, Tarantino realized that he only wanted one woman to play his leading lady: Pam Grier. Although the book’s character was white, Tarantino changed her race specifically so that Grier could take the role.
38. He Was Her Biggest Fan
When Grier met Tarantino to read for the role in his new film, Jackie Brown, she noticed posters for her own old pulp films hanging on his wall. She thought he had displayed them as a way to suck up to her, when in fact he’d considered removing them so he didn’t seem like such a huge fan! His respect for her filmography is all over Jackie Brown, the film they ultimately made together in 1997.
39. Don’t Call It A Comeback
Jackie Brown premiered in 1997 and immediately became a huge hit. Critics roundly praised Grier’s performance, and she received nominations from the Golden Globes and a Screen Actor’s Guild Awards. While others called it her comeback, Grier disagreed. She felt like she had never stopped working and that all her prior roles prepared her for Jackie Brown.
40. She Met A Younger Man
Shortly after Grier’s hit movie, she celebrated with a new romance. She began seeing Kevin Evans, an executive at RCA records. In a spicy twist, Evans was 13 years younger than Grier. The couple seemed incredibly happy together, even posing for the cover of a magazine and speaking publicly about their plans to have children. Get it, Pam.
41. She Found Success
Now that she was a bonafide movie star, Grier set her sights on conquering television. For the next few decades of her career, Grier appeared regularly on popular shows like The L Word and Law and Order: SVU. All these projects gave her the chance to explore new identities and take on new acting challenges, something she had always longed for.
42. She Looked Back On Her Career
In 2010, Pam continued to experiment with new passions. She returned to the theater and she released her memoir, Foxy: My Life In Three Acts, in which she reflects on her life and career. While Grier certainly spent her life in the spotlight, Foxy revealed that she’d kept more than a few secrets along the way…
43. She’s Proud Of Her Work
In her memoir, Grier reflected on the genre that made her famous: Blaxploitation. While many people criticized the movies as overly violent, salacious, and degrading, Grier had other ideas. She defended the flicks, claiming that they were no worse than what she saw in her real life. And considering all that she went through, she should know!
44. She Called Out Stereotypes
Grier went further too. She pointed out that critics were hypocritical in judging blaxploitation films for being too violent. After all, many films starring white men featured extreme uses of force and scandalous content, but no one accused them of being exploitative. Even later in life, Pam still knew how to push boundaries in Hollywood.
45. She Reflected on Harassment
In her memoir, Grier looked back on her treatment as a woman in the entertainment industry She notes that she was lucky to have an agent who protected her. John Gaines would accompany Grier to parties and meetings to make sure she didn’t have to deal with any inappropriate men or dangerous situations. But that doesn’t mean Grier never faced down lecherous executives.
46. She Got Help From Famous Friends
At a party, Grier revealed that she received some unwanted attention from Sammy Davis Jr. He eagerly propositioned and to make matters worse, his wife was right there! When Grier realized that she couldn’t subtly keep Davis Jr. away, she escaped with the help of Hollywood icon Liza Minnelli. Talk about having friends in high places!
47. She Went Back To Her Roots
Despite her wild and glamorous Hollywood life, there’s still no place Pam would rather be than home. She still lives at her ranch in Denver, Colorado, where she rehabilitates horses and spends her days in the wilderness that she loves. Deep down, she’s still that adventurous little girl who loves to fish and dreamed big.
48. She Hasn’t Found Love
Despite her status as one of the most beautiful women of all time, Grier has actually never tied the knot. According to her memoir, this isn’t a coincidence. When asked about her love life, she often says different versions of the same thing. Grier deeply loved all the men she had relationships with, but at the end of the day, she loved herself more.
49. She Will Always Be The First Female Action Star
Pam has had such an iconic, groundbreaking career (not the mention a scandalous personal life) that her story could be its own movie. After all, she is Hollywood royalty and continues to be an inimitable, tough-talking trailblazer. Tarantino called her “the first female action star”, and so she will always be a silver screen legend.
50. She Might Become A Character
Grier has lived quite a life and soon, it might get the cinema treatment. The star is currently shopping around the script for a movie about her life story. Saturday Night Live star Jay Pharaoh has already expressed interest in playing Grier’s most, um, eventful romantic partner: Richard Pryor. Hollywood, please make this movie. I will definitely buy a ticket.