There are all other legends, and then there is Pam Grier. She became the first and greatest Black female action hero of the Seventies, in blaxploitation classics like Coffy and Foxy Brown. She reigns as one of the all-time iconic Hollywood stars, from her Quentin Tarantino collaboration Jackie Brown to her excellent memoir Foxy. She tells her incredible life story in the fourth season of TCM’s documentary podcast The Plot Thickens. The full season is now available, and bonus episodes are being released through Feb. 7.
Pam Grier spent an afternoon with Rolling Stone to talk about how she changed the game for Black women in the movies. She also had a lot to say about jamming with Jimi Hendrix, getting thrown out of clubs with John Lennon, why Gloria Steinem is her abuela, planning a movie with Cardi B, driving a horse to the hospital with Richard Pryor, why she always carries a chain saw, and how she started the “Brown Nipple Revolution.”
You famously left Hollywood to live on a ranch in Colorado. What do you love about country life?
I’m an independent woman. I’m always ready for an emergency. Clothes, keys, boots by the door in case of an earthquake. A backpack with extra water. Anywhere I go, I have a fire extinguisher in my truck, in case people throw a cigarette out the window.
And a 20-inch chain saw, oiled and ready to go. I saw a tree fallen over the road, the only access road around. I pull over and see all these truckers standing around, saying, “Darn, there’s a 10,000-pound tree on the road. What are we gonna do? Then I get out and I see their faces. “Uh-oooh — here comes Foxy Brown with her chain saw!”
My grandfather taught me that — how the girls could be self-sufficient and take care of themselves. I pick up my dates at Home Depot and Lowes. I can name 10 tractor companies. I can drive a forklift. I ain’t no fool.
You have always been a superhero to people.
I’m taller than everybody in Hollywood. No one eats. They’re small and skinny. I’m a tall big-bones sister. Sometimes I won’t get work because I’m too tall for the leading man. I was gonna play Tina Turner, in What’s Love Got To Do With It? Tina’s five-one. I’m five-eight — put on shoes, I’m six-two. Who’s gonna play Ike? Laurence Fishburne? I said, I’m taller than him! I saw his one-man play in New York. He’s not gonna be able to throw my big ass across the room!
There was a guy I was dating, but I said, “I’m not gonna date you until you get your fishing license.” I ain’t playing. Don’t be going out to the lake, bringing in all this trout, and you think you gangsta. If I stay here at the cabin, you know I’m gonna get a fishing license. I’m not gonna be an accessory to your madness. You ain’t getting none until you get your fishing license. You ain’t going fishing here, Jack.
What was it like to be a pioneer for Black women in Hollywood?
I wanted everyone to get used to seeing women of color. I did nudity in Coffy and Foxy Brown to help create the audience, to make people accept seeing women in power, with martial arts and guns. I call it the “Brown Nipple Revolution.” I wanted to make people start seeing women of color, because we weren’t the epitome of sexual attraction for the male audience, in movies, magazines, anything. I said, “How come we don’t see women of color in Hollywood and see them beautifully, like Fellini and Bertolucci and Bergman see women? They just don’t do it.” But we were told our brown nipples weren’t attractive. I was trying to break that line of what was acceptable in society.
I did Fool for Love in the theater, Sam Shepherd, 90 minutes with no intermission. You’re nude under the sheets and you get dressed on stage — even during matinees, when people are eating tuna fish sandwiches, all their wax papers crackling in the front row. All I wanted to know was, should I wax or shave? Because my hair grows fast and I don’t wanna distract from the scene.
You were a female action hero at a time when there weren’t images of women like that in movies.
Never. They wouldn’t accept a white woman in those roles. Coffy was written for a white woman. But white women stayed home; they weren’t supposed to do manly work. For women of color, it was different. We had to be independent when my father wasn’t home. My mom was ostracized for cutting the grass.
But I’m also multiracial. My family is Native American, Nigerian, Scottish, Irish, Filipino, Chinese, and Spanish. It’s United Nations. When I was born, my mom had gone to visit my dad’s Geechee relatives. They all look white, they’re biracial and from the plantation tobacco plantations, who they worked for for years. The Geechee aunties took me into a room, and they rubbed me with my nasty-ass oils and leaves and trick twigs. My mama was upset — she said, “I’m gonna have to clean that mess off that child.” But they said, “We can see she’s a special child.”
And I wanted to go to film school. There was only four at the time, when I graduated in 1967: USC, UCLA, NYU, and Northwestern. That was it. Now there’s thousands of film schools. But I remember driving out to California, the palm trees and the green grass. The campus of UCLA was like the Taj Mahal to me.
You were such an icon of Seventies feminism. Did you and Gloria Steinem have a tight connection?
We still do. She’s my mentor. She put me on the cover of Ms. Magazine when they said, “Don’t do that. You can’t put a Black woman on the cover of a magazine. You ain’t gonna sell.” Sold out in an hour. She has guided me. Her words have gotten me through so much. She’s my sister. A mama. Una abuela para mi.
I love Gloria, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan. I call them my Fearsome Foursome. Those are my superheroes. I don’t know if Gloria is Jewish, but if not, you had a shiksa, you had a bubbe, you had two some sisters in there. Now that’s culture! We’re talking collard greens and kosher, all down the line! That’s fierce for me.
You wrote your great memoir, Foxy, and now you’re doing this TCM podcast The Plot Thickens. What is it like telling people about your life?
My life is like a freestyle rap or free jazz — something always comes up from somewhere. I lived through cancer and I lived through an earthquake. All these wonderful people have taught me about life and shared their lives with me. People hearing my podcast, we can all bring the beats and the music and the culture and the food and the fire. And the chain saws.
My friends come in to visit me in a rural setting. They’re buying and renting RVs, seeing the country, so they’re meeting the folks in the trailer parks. They go, “Hey, that’s the redneck over there. He has a mullet. He has Confederate flags.” But by the end of their three or four days in the park, they’re friends. They’re sitting, talking, barbecuing. They’re talking about fishing bass, and the white folks say, “How’s she know about that?” But that’s who we are. And we lost our way. We’ve created some really insignificant myth about red side, blue side, whose side it is. It don’t matter. And I bring that to my work.
You write about Richard Pryor in Foxy. How do you remember him?
Richard Pryor said I was the funniest bitch ever. That’s why he liked me, because I put his horse in the backseat of my Jaguar to take to the vet. His horse got injured at the house, so I said, “I’m taking him to the vet.” Richard didn’t have a truck or a horse trailer. So I put Ginger in my Jag. We’re going fast, sparks flying, hitting the hydraulics, my struts and shocks are gone. And white people on the side of us going, “Oh noooo! There’s two Negros in that car with a horse in the backseat!”
I thought OK, we might die on the way. How’s that gonna read? “News at 11: An actress, a comedian, and a horse crash in a Jaguar.” When we get there, the whole hospital is standing out in the parking lot, staring. Richard’s still in his bathrobe. I’m in my tennis outfit, because I had no time to change. But we saved that horse. That’s who I am — I’m gonna save that life, I’m gonna put out that fire. And Richard said, “You the craziest bitch. You funnier than me!”
That’s why we had a connection. But if you disrespect me in life and everything else, it’s not gonna happen. You gotta have your show, your stage, but then you come home to reality. Sometimes Richard couldn’t have both, and that’s what I required. Get your fishing license. Get your drivers’ license. I love you, but I can’t live by your rules.
That seems to be a theme in your life.
I was dating Lewis Alcindor, who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But I couldn’t make him happy. He called off the wedding because he needed to be with a Muslim woman who was “prepared” for him. I said, “Prepared? Like a sandwich?” Then with [the late comedian] Freddie Prinze, it’s the same way. He wanted to have a place out in the country. “You won’t have to work. You can just have the children.” I was like, “Right, and I know you’ll cheat, just like the rest of ‘em.”
The men are gonna do that. I’d say, “Matter of fact, here’s a box of condoms for the road. I’ll put it in your luggage, so you don’t bring me back anything.” “Location lust,” we call it in the movie industry. I’ve seen them take their rings off in the elevators when I step in. You think you slick? You think you’ll come home and I’ll take care of you? Please. Go let your fuck buddy take care of you. Please don’t even try. Don’t even try to steal my credit card and go pay for a fuck buddy with my credit card. That ain’t even gonna happen. Because I’m gonna cut your ass up, motherfucker. Don’t worry about my guns. Worry about my chain saw.
People look up to you because you’re a fighter.
I’m a general!
But do you feel you’ve had to be a real-life fighter?
For sure. That’s why I tell men, we’re gonna have timeshare dating. See, I timeshare men: 3 months, 90 days, that’s all you get. I only date a timeshare guy 90 days a year. After that, it’s me time. So what season do you want?
What’s it like to be such a cross-cultural, cross-generational icon? Some of the biggest Pam Grier fans are the young ones just discovering you.
Yeah — I’m writing something for me and Cardi B.
Really? That has to be the greatest duo ever.
Not to mention my World War II movie that’s about ready to shoot off, and then Foxy [a screen adaptation of her memoir] — but yeah. I love Cardi and “WAP.” I love Megan Thee Stallion. I told her, “You and your artistry are beautiful. People are gonna punk you because a stallion is a male horse, but there’s some really foxy mares!”
She’s really good. She went to college. You got to have your goals. You’re gonna have haters, you’re gonna have jealousy, but just do your art, do your passion from your heart. She and Lizzo and Nicki Minaj and some of the others, they know — you gotta make your own style. You get to hire people later. But you come up with your own stuff, then you just draw people like a magnet, so collaborators make you greater and greater.
I want them to find that. Because we all come from our individual planets, with different beats and tones. Working with Quentin [Tarantino] is like being with a maestro. Sam Jackson, he has a very fast beat. Michael Keaton has a different tone; so did Robert Forster. And me, I’m a musician who has to play with each one of ‘em in a different tone. That’s what I do.
Quentin’s background is music. If you look at Jackie Brown, you know that — he’s into old school R&B. That’s why he had to namedrop me in Reservoir Dogs. And I was sitting in Manhattan at the Angelika Theater, watching it with my friends! I had no idea I was part of it. But his creativity is extraordinary.
People hear different beats and see different songs. It’s like animals — dogs only see yellow and blue. But mine see everything — psychedelic little monkeys! I got my horses and I love ‘em to death. Teach me everything. They love music, like people. Music and life and culture — it’s this wonderful cacophony blend, like gumbo. You hear hip-hop, with the rappers doing Arabic beats and Spanish beats. I love zydeco like crazy. I love Punjabi hip-hop. So don’t close it off. You never know what music is gonna inspire you to come out there. Everybody’s got their groove. My horses gotta groove — they all listen to music. They love the bass. They love “The Humpty Dance” by Digital Underground. They hear it and go, “Now we’re having fun. And mom’s up there grooving in the saddle. We’re all having fun.”
Many people don’t realize you were part of the music scene in the Sixties. How did you come to jam with Sly and Hendrix?
I did back-up singing with Bobby Womack and Wonder Love, Stevie Wonder’s back-up group. Bobby introduced me to his friend Sylvester Stewart. In my head, he’s just a guy named Sylvester. Then I see him playing with the Family Stone with a big ‘fro, looking like new money. And I go, Sylvester is Sly Stone? Pinch me, stab me with a fork, how this is happening? Sly says, “I hear you can sing.” I can also play piano and Hammond B-3. And he had two women in his band. A lot of the rock bands at that time didn’t have women in their bands. Later on, Beyonce had her all-girl band, Alicia Keys with all girls. The girl musicians could get carpal tunnel syndrome now.
One night, I’ve been singing with Bobby, and I’m like, oh man, I’m tired, I’m hungry. I’m leaving. Then I look up, the elevator opens, three guys come out. Two blondes, but the one in this middle has this black hat on. He looked like a Black Zorro. It’s Jimi Hendrix and his Band of Gypsies, here to jam with Sly and the Family Stone. Just buddies playing. I look at Jimi and say, “I can sing.” Bobby told him, “Yeah, she can play keyboard.” Jimi said okay. I didn’t wanna be the little kid, all crazy and giddy over these people. I need to be cool and quiet. They bring out a big salad bowl of cocaine, but I don’t go near it. I thought it was baking powder.
I sit there at the keyboard and play. I don’t know why — I just wanna be in there. I showed him I wanna be in there; I wanted to figure out what I could do. Probably not enough. But after a while, I went out and watched through the studio window, like everyone else, just watching brilliance. Buddy Miles on drums, Sly on bass, Jimi on guitar. And it was so funky.
You also hung with John Lennon?
I almost went to jail with John, the night we got kicked out of the club. I knew him and Harry Nilsson — you know him, “Nilsson Schmilson.” We were in rehearsals for the Oscars. I was friends with Jackie Haley Jr. and his wife Liza Minnelli. They snuck me out of Sammy Davis Jr’s house, one night when he was trying hunt me down. I had to dive in the back of their Rolls Royce. I had to get away from Sammy because he wouldn’t stop and I didn’t want to kill him. “News at 11: Pam Grier knocks out Sammy’s other eye.”
Jack wanted me to go see the Smothers Brothers at the Troubadour with Nilsson Schmilson and John. I’m asking, “Who’s going? Is Victoria Principal going? Wait, it’s all men? I can’t go.” But I get in the car and they’re not drunk. They’re quiet around me, because I’m real quiet. We go in and they’re playing gospel in the background, a bar of “Old TIme Religion.” It reminds John of “I Can’t Stand The Rain,” the Ann Peebles song that Missy Elliott did later. I start playing that beat on the table, and he starts singing. “I can’t stand the rain, against my window / Brings back those memories.” People turn around to see who’s singing — they see John Lennon and go the fuck out of their skulls. Then it’s a big drunk mess, throwing tables.
This will teach you a big lesson, Miss Thang. Whoever you think you are, going out with Harry Nilsson Schmilsson and John Lennon and Peter Lawford. And what the fuck? We’re sitting on the curb with the LAPD taking our statement so we can go back to rehearsals for the Oscars. I broke my nails, hair pulled out, scratches all over me. I was like, oh Lord, hanging out with these white people. You better be rich or be prepared.
John sent me flowers the next day with a note. He said, “Thank you for not beating me up.”
Are you ever surprised how you keep making these connections with people in unexpected places?
I didn’t plan that. That wasn’t in my dance card. My pain has been deep, but my joy is infinite. That’s the balance of life. I’m not stopping my joy.
Thanks for all your wisdom. You are a sage as well as a legend.
You can add Yoda. And absolutely Confucius.