Pam Grier is comfortable with being an icon

During the 1970s, the peak of the blaxploitation film period, Pam Grier reigned supreme as the undisputed queen of the genre and one of the scarce female lead action stars in history. To film enthusiasts, she authentically represented a one-woman demolition squad – a firearm-wielding deity who achieved fame in films such as “Coffy,” “Sheba, Baby,” and the timeless “Foxy Brown,” where she battled against underhanded drug traffickers and challenged the notion that a woman couldn’t overpower a man. “Not many other women aimed to resemble me, because it’s tough, shooting a gun – arms intimidate people. Defying authority and standing against injustice is intimidating,” Grier mentioned. “And I guess I didn’t know any better!” Pam Grier confronts truly wicked individuals in “Foxy Brown”:

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But she continually seemed to triumph, eventually transitioning to roles that didn’t involve physical confrontations, such as one opposite Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks in “Larry Crowne.”

And presently, Grier portrays the mother of a Los Angeles homicide detective in the second season of the successful horror series “Them,” now available for streaming on Amazon Prime. Questioned about why she agreed to this series, Grier answered, “Madness! Because I’m not good with eerie noises. You know, I’m not good – I lock the doors, turn on the lights. Don’t sneak up behind me!” However, there have been instances when her real life was more terrifying than anything in a cinema.

Pamela Suzette Grier was born 75 years ago today, May 26. An Air Force child, she was raised close to bases from North Carolina to the United Kingdom. Her family eventually made their home in Colorado, where young Pam acquired some skills that would benefit her later in life. “I had this raw edge, you know, from the ‘hood, that I didn’t have to learn how to ride a horse, I didn’t have to learn how to administer a spanking. I didn’t have to learn to throw a skillet. You know, these capabilities came with my talent.”

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And to refine that talent, she relocated to Los Angeles in the ’60s, where she was discovered and subsequently cast in a number of gritty prison girl movies, such as “Women in Cages” and “The Big Bird Cage.” As her prominence grew, her personal relationships garnered attention, too. She never wed, but Grier was romantically linked to several high-profile men, including comic legend Richard Pryor, with whom she featured in the film “Greased Lightning.” Asked if she considered she could have married Pryor, Grier responded, “For a day. I ended relationships not falling out of love, but not being loved. And there’s a distinction. Maybe my spouse, partner, companion was filmmaking.”

By the mid-’80s, she was a well-known figure in Hollywood on big screens (“Fort Apache the Bronx,” “Something Wicked This Way Comes”) and small screens (“Miami Vice,” “Crime Story”). And then, her life encountered a significant obstacle. In 1988, Grier received a Stage-4 cancer diagnosis and was informed she had 18 months to live. “My world came to an abrupt halt that day in the doctor’s office,” she stated. “And that’s how we evolve. They couldn’t utter cancer. They said the C-word. ‘We have the C-word.’ And I was like, ‘Uh, you can say cancer. And I’m gonna give it my all.'” And her all was ample. She recuperated and began to realign her career.

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Actress Pam Grier.

CBS News

It turns out Grier had admirers in high places, something she learned by chance while watching the 1992 Quentin Tarantino movie “Reservoir Dogs.” “In the vehicle, they mention this woman who is this vigilante named Foxy Brown! And I was sitting there, and everyone, they turn around and gesture to me!” Shortly afterward, she encountered Tarantino in person, who informed her he was scripting a screenplay with her in mind. “I didn’t believe it,” she stated, ” ’cause he’s the number one premier filmmaker, pop filmmaker globally. I mean worldwide. And he said, ‘No, seriously, I’m gonna send it to you.'”

And it was more than she had ever dreamed: Grier played the title role in Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown,” alongside Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, and Michael Keaton. Unsurprisingly, the experience transformed her into a major Tarantino enthusiast. “Man, I hope he doesn’t retire,” she said. “I’ll babysit his children so he can go to work. I don’t want him to retire. There’s so much more to him. And he may not wanna give it. But I’ve been incredibly fortunate to witness his lessons, his joy he has shared with me.”

And the joy persists: in a storefront attached to his Vista Theater in Los Angeles, Tarantino established a coffee shop named after one of Grier’s most renowned characters, Coffy. Inside, the establishment is essentially a shrine, with Grier’s likeness on everything from posters to coffee mugs.

Asked if it was somewhat overwhelming, Grier replied, “Yes, it is indeed overwhelming!”

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Pam Grier pays a visit to Pam’s Coffy.

CBS News

Pam Grier seems at ease with being a legend, as long as it means she can continue doing what she loves. Asked how long she plans to keep making movies, she replied, “‘Til I’m about 100. You take small steps. You still move forward. And my steps might get really small when I get older, I don’t know. But I never want to lose my curiosity and respect for what we have.”

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Story produced by John D’Amelio. Editor: Lauren Barnello.

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Tracy Smith

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Tracy Smith is a correspondent for “CBS News Sunday Morning” and “48 Hours.” Smith is a versatile correspondent who is equally adept at interviewing actor and comic Billy Crystal as she is going head-to-head with outspoken New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Her work on “CBS News Sunday Morning” has included covering news, the arts, pop culture and celebrity interviews.

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