Pam Grier on Maintaining Her Independence and Identity in Showbiz (Published 2019) (2024)

What an odd thing it is to have a career like Pam Grier’s. Her long, respectable tenure as an actress is illuminated in the public memory by two long-ago cinematic beacons — the first being her early-1970s reign as the queen of blaxploitation movies. “I loved being a part of it,” Grier says about those days, “and showing that there’s an audience for that narrative and culture.” An audience that she helped prime for the second beacon: Her seeming resurrection as a pop-culture figure by Quentin Tarantino, who featured her in his 1997 film, “Jackie Brown.” (Her most notable nonfilm credit is as Kit Porter in the Showtime series “The L Word.”) But Grier, who currently appears on the ABC sitcom “Bless This Mess” and works as a pitchwoman for Brown Sugar, a streaming service for “classic black cinema,” doesn’t just want to trade on past glories. “I love being asked at 70 to show my badonkadonk, my gray hair and my craziness.”

Your career presents a kind of paradox, in that you had this legendary past but, until “Jackie Brown,” that past didn’t translate into meaty film work. Was that ever frustrating? No, there wasn’t any frustration, because my work spoke for itself. There’s no such thing as a small role. When I was doing the Sam Shepard play “Fool for Love,”1 it sold out for nine months. I loved doing it, and film directors would come and watch us; I was up for a role in “The Witches of Eastwick” as one of the witches with Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer.

[Meet the photographer who took the portrait of Pam Grier at the top of this page.]

Do you know why you didn’t get that role? No. It would’ve been a breakout mainstream film for me. I tested. I think the studio was basically trying to make a deal with Bill Murray to star in it, and they couldn’t close it, so the next person was Jack Nicholson, who was dating Anjelica Huston. She was dark and exotic. So they tested her, and it didn’t work out. And then there was Cher, and they gave her the role. That was that one mainstream film that would have given me a broader audience. But there were no bad feelings. When people wouldn’t see me for a role, it was a recognition of the power of the beauty in women, of something that’s so captivating it can be distracting against the work.

Pam Grier on Maintaining Her Independence and Identity in Showbiz (Published 2019) (1)

Pam Grier with her brother, Rod, in the 1950s. From Pam Grier

Did you see when Anjelica Huston made some condescending remarks about “Poms”2 earlier this year? Quite a few women made condescending remarks. But when you work with Diane Keaton, whom I’ve wanted to work with forever, and you know that the studios kept black artists from working with white artists all the time because it would shorten the box office — Diane Keaton put her money where her mouth was. That’s all I’ve got to say.

Where do you think people’s condescension was coming from? I don’t know. I’ve had one woman sit in a makeup chair next to me — she didn’t know I was in “Poms” — and say, “How could any woman put themselves up there and make fools of themselves?” I said: “Have you been to a nursing home recently? My mom and all these women that are 80 and 90 are sitting there wishing they could do pom-pom shaking like we did.” I once had to fight to wear my hair gray in a movie. It was “Cleveland Abduction,” about those women who were kept in that house for 10 years.3 My character was a 60-year-old nurse! I had to say, “If you don’t like the gray hair, I quit.” People react differently to your gray hair and to your weight. Society promotes thinness, and youth is thinness and what makes people attracted to you. I don’t want to be attracted to. I don’t want to be attacked.

Given your personal history,4 was it hard to act in movies that often featured the threat of sexual violence? It’s in a lot of the blacksploitation films. Sure, but by being nude in those movies I was trying to help men understand. Society created this mystery about the vagin*, the breasts. When you create a mystery, people want to see it and attack it if they can’t have it. So I was like, here’s the mystery. I hope I bore you and you’ll never get a hard-on again.

Would you have had to change anything about yourself in order to have crossed over to mainstream movies sooner than you did? Nope. Many of the crossovers didn’t happen because some of the white actors said, “I don’t want her to be in this movie with me.”

You know that for a fact? For a fact. The director wanted me in the film.

Which film? I’m not telling you. I have a letter from the director saying, “So sorry, this is my first American film and this actor wanted his girlfriend to test.” I didn’t care. I said: “That’s O.K. I’ll get to work. I’m going to work. Something that’s my choice.”

Quentin Tarantino is the most highly regarded director you’ve worked with. But I remember reading that you felt5 he wasn’t as strong with interpreting women’s emotions as you would’ve liked. Was there something specific with “Jackie Brown” that made you think that? The first take that I did in “Jackie Brown” in the scene in the kitchen with Robert Forster, the crew members were crying. They thought it was the best take. They applauded. They loved it. It was right. And Quentin said: “Let’s do another one. But try not to cry. Hold the tear.” I can’t control holding the tear on my eyelid. If it goes, it’s going to go. In the end he chose his take. What gave me gratification was the crew members and Robert Forster, who were so moved by the first take. Quentin saw something else.

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Grier in “Jackie Brown” (1997). Miramax Films/Everett Collection

You only ever learned about acting by doing it. When did you start to feel confident in your craft? When I did theater. But in the early days, Sid Haig,6 when I was working with him, said, “Pam, you’re a natural.” Sometimes I was so strong I wouldn’t be hired, because I was so dang good, and there was no audience for a black woman. “Don’t hire her. She’s too good. She’s too pretty. She’s too exotic.” I said, that’s O.K., I’ll find a role. We’ll not make it an issue. It’s an evolution. People are more tolerant now. They’re looking for different cultures. I remember I was invited to Richard Dreyfuss’s wedding. It was Jewish, and they had women on one side and men on the other.

You’re a friend of Richard Dreyfuss’s? I don’t even know how I got invited. I think I was invited by Carl Gottlieb.7 It was so beautiful to be invited to see all this culture that you hadn’t seen because they didn’t show a lot of Jewish culture in movies. It was so fascinating.

I know you’ve always been intellectually and culturally curious. Was it difficult early in your career to have so much attention paid to how you looked and relatively little paid to your mind? That’s human nature. I’ve had boyfriends in the past who were appalled when I cut the grass. I was torn between how I was raised8 and how modern society wanted me to be dependent on a man. “We have to have sex, and I’ll pay your rent and buy you a car and pay for your baby, and when you have stretch marks, and you’re not attractive anymore, I’ll find a new wife.” [Snaps fingers] Fashion. [Snaps fingers] org*sms. [Snaps fingers] Babies. These things are temporary. Intellect is forever.

Is it right that you believed circ*mscribed gender roles were what came between you and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?9 Yes. Kareem had converted to Islam. When he gave me a book on how to be a Muslim woman, I was shocked. Before we started dating, he was very liberal and fair. I had so many different facets of my life. Then I could see it being squeezed into this servitude. He wanted me to give up my life to show my love for him. He called me on my birthday to ask if I would commit to Islam. Wait a minute! Being under his success, being a wife of him, I’d lose my identity and my education. Kareem, on my birthday, said: “If you don’t commit to me to become a Muslim, then I’m getting married this afternoon to someone else. A woman who has been prepared for me.” I said, “Prepared like a sandwich?” It hit me that I was going to lose my identity. But who am I to judge? So I said: “I can’t make you happy. This makes you happy. Safe travels.”10

Did you two ever reconcile? It was not a reconciliation. I was working on a project in California. He wanted to see me. He says: “I’d love to talk to you and see you. Can I come by?” I chose not to see him. The power of “no” is one thing I’ve learned. As my agent says, “Pam turns down 90 percent of the things she’s offered.” Sometimes those offers are for things that are derivative or just want to use my brand.

Your brand is so closely associated with nostalgia for the blaxploitation era. Are people missing or overemphasizing certain things when they look back at that time and those movies? It wasn’t called blaxploitation until I put my feet in the men’s shoes. Men had done the same type of formulaic films before I did.11 It wasn’t until I stepped in their shoes that they said, “Well, these movies are for a black audience.” I was creating the market for films about women fighting back and using sexuality.

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Grier in a publicity photo for her movie “Hit Man,” circa 1972. Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

And that’s how you thought of your work at the time? Yeah. Gloria Steinem was talking about liberation: Get a job, get your education, you don’t need to be validated by a man or your uterus. So I was like: “There’s so much going on. Who am I?” I said: “I don’t want to be in love. I don’t want to be married. I need to get an education.” I saw a lot of the personal needs that are fundamental and that create your happiness. I chose happiness. Kareem didn’t make me happy.

Did Richard Pryor?12 He did. He made me very happy. But I knew that he was going to squander it. I was there for him. I got him a bike, and we went riding on the beach. The happiest moment was seeing him get on that bike. Or when I put his horse in the back seat of my Jaguar. He loved that horse. He was so happy. We were a real couple. Then outside forces would force him to be Richard Pryor, the Man.

Sorry, what’s this about putting a horse in your car? Richard knew I liked horses. But he couldn’t figure out why I wouldn’t move in with him. I said, “Well, I don’t need to at this time,” and he said, “Then you don’t need me!” Then Burt Sugarman13 gifted him a very large miniature horse, more like a pony, and Richard named her Ginger, and Ginger was a lure to me. I was enamored. However, one day I came to Richard’s house, and there had been an emergency. His dogs had attacked Ginger. I didn’t have a horse trailer to get her to the vet. Richard was hysterical, because he was going — not cold turkey, but he had removed himself from the drug scene. The horse was going to bleed to death. The vet couldn’t come to us but said, “You can bring her in.” I said: “I’m bringing her. We’ll be in a yellow Jaguar.” It was a four-door ’74 XJ6L, banana yellow with brown stripes. I pulled Ginger in the back seat. Richard was in his bathrobe. We jumped in the car and headed down the 405 with Ginger’s head out one window, tail out the other. We caused a stir. And we saved Ginger.

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Grier with Richard Pryor in 1977. MediaPunch, via Associated Press

I know you also have a story about meeting John Lennon at a Smothers Brothers show and having a heart-to-heart with him. What was your impression of him as a person, and not as a Beatle, on the night you met? He was revealing to me. That’s what was so surprising. You could see he was lonely. He missed Yoko. But the story is that Jack Haley Jr.14 had invited me to go see the Smothers Brothers. I had said: “No, I can’t be around a group of men or anything like that. I can’t put myself in situations where I might be attacked a fourth time.” And Jack says: “No, no, no. We’ll be with you: Peter Lawford, Marty Pasetta, John Lennon, Harry Nilsson.”15 He said: “Pam, I’ll make sure you’ll be O.K. You need to come. You are a star. I want you to come meet these people.” Jack and Liza Minnelli and I were friends, because they hid me in their car when they got me out of Sammy Davis Jr’s house. He was chasing me down.16 She covered me with her sable coat, and I dove in the back of their car, and they drove me out. That should be a movie! Anyway, we drove to where the Smothers Brothers were playing. Everyone was respectful. John and Harry were talking about Little Richard and blues, and I said I’d been in a gospel group. I said I thought that “I Can’t Stand the Rain” by Ann Peebles was a gospel song that she turned into a pop song. Then John started singing. He said, “Harmonize, go above me.” We started harmonizing and people turned around, saw John Lennon, and the whole place went crazy.

Jack Haley may have called you a star, but did you feel like Hollywood was noticing the skills you had more generally? Yes, they did. They gave me jobs. Dino De Laurentiis,17 he sat down with me. He says: “You’re fascinating, because you don’t want to be marginalized. Some people are comfortable being marginalized but you are everyone. You’re international.”

Did Dino De Laurentiis ever put you in one of his movies? He wanted to. He was about to. Things happen.

Has it been weird to have so much of the public attention that’s paid to you be about movies you made decades ago? It seems as if that could clash with what a person thinks is actually important about his or her own life. It was an exciting time in the ’70s. I broke the mold, if you will, in the sense that men would say, “Wow, I don’t want to attack you, because I love you and respect you so much, and I understand you should be allowed to be sexual.” There were so many things that were happening then. All I wanted to do was show how I survived in my family as a woman. Yes, I was raped at 6. And I didn’t curl up and die. Then it happened again at 18. It was a horrible attack. So I wanted to let women know, you might be raped once or twice, I don’t wish it on anybody, but I’m O.K. That was the greatest gift I could give back to people who followed me in movies. Because my story may not be told in movies,18 because I’m not “box office.” White women are box office.

Aside from ideas about who might now be considered a bankable star, do you see fundamental differences between the old movies that stream on Brown Sugar and the movies being made today for black audiences? Today is different technologically. Instead of taking a week to do a video, they can do it in six hours. But people today are still enamored with the explosion of freedom in the ’70s. Because before that, if you were black and you went to see white rock ’n’ roll, you were called an Uncle Tom. And whites who wanted to go see James Brown or Tina Turner were called nigg*r lovers. It took that ’70s explosion so that now we feel comfortable enjoying each other’s culture. This could go on, the reality of people being much more open and free. The harmony of the human song is going to be what people listen to. The soul is going to win.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.

Pam Grier on Maintaining Her Independence and Identity in Showbiz (Published 2019) (2024)
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