EXCLUSIVE: After publishing a memoir that bared her rise as a ‘70s screen siren and a private life that included love affairs with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Richard Pryor and Freddie Prinze, Pam Grier is focused on Pam, the working title of a biopic that will bring her life story to the screen. A script by Bennie Richburg is about to be shopped, one that Jay Pharoah read and attached himself to play Pryor, whom Grier saw at his best and worst.
Grier met Pharoah when they were recording voices for the video game Infinity Wars. “I watched him and heard his voice and closed my eyes and said, ‘It’s Richard,’” she recalled. Said Pharoah, the former Saturday Night Live star who just toplined the Showtime series White Famous, “The story is heartbreaking, raw, honest and beautiful, all rolled into one testimony.”
I sought out Grier because I wondered, with all the testimony emerging from actresses about sexual harassment and assault incidents they had suffered in silence for so long, what must Hollywood have been like for Grier during the alpha male chauvinist ’70s culture, when she was one of the few actresses of color playing the heroine in movies like Foxy Brown and Coffy.
Her path has led her to interact with some recently fallen figures — Harvey Weinstein made the Quentin Tarantino-directed Jackie Brown, which reignited Grier’s career — and even more recently, Grier said she had been set to star in the Amazon Studios series that David O. Russell was directing with Robert De Niro and Julianne Moore. That series imploded directly because of the Weinstein scandal, but she still is hopeful it will come back around as the Weinstein Company is about to be resuscitated by a female-led board and leadership. I was surprised to hear that Grier experienced relatively little sexual harassment during her rise.
There is a disturbing tale in her book about a time she was invited to Sammy Davis Jr’s house where, in front of his wife Altovise, the singer became so aggressive in his attempt to bed Grier that she had to enlist Liza Minnelli and her husband Jack Haley Jr to drive her away from the estate while she hid in the back seat. But surprisingly, most of the pain caused by men took place far from Hollywood, and the heightened awareness probably kept her away from meetings scheduled with moguls at hotels, where numerous actresses allegedly fell prey to the Weinsteins of the world and subsequently were pressured to remain quiet.
As she first revealed in her book, Grier was raped at age 6 by two older boys, and again in college. It nearly happened a third time – she didn’t include that assault in the book because her publisher felt it was too much, she said – when “I fought off a 300-pound retired football player, a family friend who was supposed to come out to mentor me. I suffered scratches, abrasions, everything, but I beat the shit out out him with furniture and walked away from it.”
Grier said that her saving grace during her rise was signing with APA agent John Gaines, who repped her since she moved from receptionist at AIP to star of sexy women-in-prison movies for that company and for Roger Corman. You read the stories about actresses whose reps didn’t have the foresight to accompany them to clandestine meetings in hotel suites, and Grier acknowledges that hers could have been a much different story if she didn’t have Gaines, an agent who made sure that she didn’t find herself in potentially dangerous situations when she went up for roles. Gaines, who died in 1992, also repped Steve Martin, John Candy, Tamara Dobson (Cleopatra Jones), Shaft star Richard Roundtree and Oscar-winning Shaft singer-songwriter Isaac Hayes. She was able to create a circle of trust within that group.
“I called John my fairy godmother because of the way he protected me and guided me,” she said. “If you go to meet someone on a business deal, your lawyer, manager, agent, someone must always be with you. John always set those rules for me and created a comfort zone. He just had seen so much, he knew. When he took me to clubs, and someone would hand me a drink, he would say: “Don’t drink that. See the sediment at the bottom? You drink that and you won’t remember the next week.’ I became comfortable, not accepting the invitations. Sammy Davis Jr, and even his wife Altovise invited me back and I declined. If I didn’t have John the agent to go with me to the industry dinners or cocktail parties, I stayed away from them. I didn’t really experience the sexual harassment you might think. I wonder if they saw my films and thought that I probably could beat them up. And you know, I could, because I studied enough martial arts seriously that I probably could have really hurt someone.”
While Grier didn’t have the horror stories that so many Hollywood women have come forward to tell since Weinstein was the subject of several exposé articles, she knew several of the fallen men. We first spoke as Matt Lauer was being removed from NBC’s Today for workplace sexual misconduct, and she recalled how protective he was of her when interviewing Grier for her book. She had similar good memories of Charlie Rose – an interview done with her and Quentin Tarantino is scripted as a scene in the movie, which likely will have to be dropped. She also has good memories of Weinstein, who with brother Bob responded to a fundraising effort – Hip Hop for Humanity – to feed the homeless on Thanksgiving, by matching the entire donation, allowing for 20,000 extra dinners. “I don’t mean to soften anything he might have done or who he might have hurt, but they matched that money in my honor and didn’t have to.”
As she said about the disgraced journalists and execs: “Don’t forget Charles Kuralt, who we followed forever on Sunday Morning. He was my idol, and when he died, his second family showed up. He had another family! It destroyed my mom.”
Grier had sympathy for each woman who swallowed the shame for decades but finally spoke out. Her own decision to disclose the rapes in her life came, she said, from counsel by Gloria Steinem and in observing Maya Angelou’s experience in divulging the trauma of a childhood sexual assault. In that case, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, and she told a family member. Her attacker subsequently was killed, possibly by her uncle — an incident that so upset the future poet that she didn’t speak for the next five years.
Grier kept her assaults secret for similar fears. Said Grier: “My grandfather Daddy Ray taught all us girls to hunt, fish, shoot and drive the boat and a tractor. … If I had told my family, especially what happened when I was 6? The men in my family would have hunted those boys down, for hurting me. It would have destroyed my family, and I decided to stay quiet and see how long I can go and how much stronger I can be with this energy inside me.”
She still is processing the painful memories. “A long-term boyfriend of mine — this was someone who had gone to Harvard and someone I’d helped when he was out of work — and when I felt confident I could tell him about the things that happened, while I was working on building my confidence to talk about the things I wrote in the book. And when I told him he was shocked, and said, ‘Wow, you’re tainted.’ I said, ‘What? I’m tainted? He said, ‘Yeah, because of the attacks, the rapes and what you’ve gone through.’”
Suffice to say, he soon was her ex-boyfriend.
Grier hopes that the women who’ve relived horrible memories in this #MeToo moment felt the relief she did after taking advice that Steinem gave her back when Grier became the first African-American actor to grace the Ms. magazine cover, long before Grier was ready to talk about her sexual assaults.
“It was like the lifting of a weight, and you will have a strength that you don’t realize, until you need to summon it,” Grier said.
As for the memorable life story Grier wants to see told on the screen, the memoir Foxy provided some of the most unbelievable tales — ranging from her work in those AIP and Corman films to being a ’60s activist, and a romantic life where she fell in love with Abdul-Jabbar, Prinze and Pryor but stopped short of marriage to all of them because she would have had to become something she wasn’t. That began when she fell in love with UCLA basketball star Lew Alcindor. After he converted to Muslim and changed his name, he pressed her to marry. But the required submissiveness was just too much of her. An episode where she recounted trying on a head scarf while driving in a convertible on the PCH, with the scarf getting tangled around her face and nearly plunging her car off a cliff, proved to be a surreal omen. She still hung in until one fateful morning when Abdul-Jabbar told her that an arranged marriage was set for him for 2 PM that day, with a woman who was a converted Muslim. He would keep the date unless Grier agreed to marry him and embrace his religion. Unwilling to live a subservient life where everything but her hands would be covered when seen in public, Grier basically told him, congratulations on your big day.
Her romances with Prinze and Pryor also resulted in heartbreak. She and Prinze became steadies just as he was becoming the hottest comic since Pryor and when he became a big TV star with Chico and the Man. He was a sensitive, trusting soul, and she tried to get him to sign with her protective agent. But Prinze succumbed to the promises of a movie career made by flashier dealmakers at bigger agencies, which never materialized as Prinze’s ambitions — and fortune — was sucked dry by an entourage and an alarming amount of cocaine. Grier had to steer clear, but she was one of the last people Prinze spoke to before he shot himself in 1977.
“I call him back, and he’s at this hotel on Wilshire Boulevard and he’s in really bad shape,” she said. “His voice. There was so much sadness and disappointment. He was alone, almost ranting, talking about [how] he’s lost his house. He doesn’t know where his money is. He’s got all these people. And he can’t make his own decisions. He was just … I said: ‘OK. First of all, have you eaten? Have you slept?’ And he says, “No. I haven’t. I’m at this hotel because I’m not in my house anymore. He said, ‘I need some money, I don’t know where my money is. It’s gone out the window and I worked so hard…’ I said, ‘I can get you money, but have you eaten?’ He says, ‘No. I’m so depressed. I have nobody to talk to. I have no friends. I have a gun. And I feel I’m gonna do something, Mommy.’ That is what he called me. I said, ‘You can’t hurt yourself. You have too much going for you and once you sever those people out of your life and start over, you’ll be fine.’ He wouldn’t listen. ‘I can’t start over. … I’ve lost too much.’ I think, ‘How do I help this man who is so despondent, and who has a gun?’ Grier got him money that she hoped would not go to drugs. “I was so compelled to just run over there, but I just didn’t feel I could,” she said. “I felt there’s danger that I can’t control. Days later, a friend told her Prinze had succumbed to his demons and killed himself. “I didn’t know how to stop him, and I didn’t know if I would have survived trying.”
Her relationship with Pryor also disintegrated over his drug problem. This after they had a long romantic relationship in which she helped Pryor overcome insecurities that included illiteracy – she helped him learn to read, and they settled into a real home life that settled a comic who’d famously grown up in a brothel. But the bad influences around Pryor, and drugs, got the best of him. She received a similar crisis call as she got from Prinze, only this one came from Sidney Poitier, who was directing Pryor and Gene Wilder in 1980’s Stir Crazy.
“‘Pam, Richard’s high, and we’re like 10 weeks behind and they’re going to pull the plug on the movie,’ Sidney says. ‘Gene Wilder … everybody’s mad. Everybody’s upset. Everyone’s afraid they’re going to lose their jobs. Can you come down here and talk to Richard? I think you’re the only person who can reach him.’
“I was on my way to do Fort Apache, the Bronx in New York, and I said I would come down on my way and see if I can do anything or say anything,” Grier said. “I get there, and he’s freebasing. I’d never seen anything like that. Holding a Bunsen burner of liquid in front of your face, while something’s in a net that looks like a rock cooking … it was just so bizarre to me. And I wanted to say, ‘Well, you know, Sidney, Richard has some fears, insecurities and they have to be addressed. Maybe like a musician he has to prepare himself, get high before he comes to the set. I don’t know. You always knew he did indulge and now you want him to stop? I don’t know how you’re gonna do that. But you’re gonna have to give him some time, help him figure out how he can prepare without that, so his career isn’t destroyed.’
“So Richard and I talk, we go to the set and he says, ‘I’m glad you came and I’m going to try, I’m really going to try to stop. I didn’t want you to be disappointed.’ And I said, ‘I’m not disappointed. It’s just you have such an opportunity. People love you so much. And you’re gonna take it all away. For some reason you don’t want to give whatever it is. So, I’m gonna go.”
Finally, Grier had enough of the empty promises.
“Shortly after, a call comes in through the production office of Fort Apache and it’s Jim Brown,” Grier recalled. “He says Richard wants to talk to me and I need to fly there. He may not live through the night. And I ended up saying, ‘Well you know what, Jim? Richard did some things that disrespected me.’ And he always said, if you disrespect someone and they hang around that means they have no self-esteem and you can do anything to them — lie, and steal. I said that if I come back to his bedside and back into his life … he’s just going to have to get out of his bed alone, walk by himself and find himself. And I remember Jim saying, ‘Wow. That’s cold, Pam.’ And I went, ‘Yeah, it is. It is cold. But maybe this tough love will help him to change. I don’t know.’ And I remember going back to my apartment and just sobbing. Like why? Why?”
Grier’s worst fears soon were realized. After days of freebasing cocaine, Pryor poured 151 proof rum on himself and lit himself on fire, running down the street from his Los Angeles home until police put him out.
“When he had that accident, I wouldn’t come,” he said. “And he was recovering and then he tried to get back into the business. And I remember when he married Jennifer and I get a call from Eddie Murphy saying they’re doing a benefit for Richard, would I come? And I said, ‘Sure.’ And I came, said hi and left. I always supported Richard, his return to his work and what he could give us from his spirit and soul, the great observations on life that made us laugh at ourselves. I supported him for so long, but sometimes you have to let go of the pain from relationships, the same way I had to let go of the pain from the attacks. It was the only way I could find my own healing, my peace.
“Just as I couldn’t change the attacks or the people who attacked me. I couldn’t change Richard. I couldn’t change Freddie or Kareem. And I realized it’s not about changing other people, it’s about changing myself. And that is what I want to tell people with this, that there will be pain in life, but you can survive it and it will make you stronger and protect you from other instances. I wanted to save their lives, but I had to save my own.”
Not every man has been a disappointment. Like when Grier first met Tarantino, who made a promise — one she didn’t believe — and kept it.
“I’m in a car, driving in LA, and my passenger is Warrington Hudlin,” she said. “We’re trying to develop some projects through HBO, and we’re stopped at a light on Hollywood Boulevard. I see this guy, leaning over, talking to this woman, I don’t know if he was macking or talking to an old friend, and Warrington says, ‘Hey, that’s Quentin Tarantino. Rumor is he’s writing something for you.’ He says, ‘Hey, Quentin, it’s Warrington, and I got Pam Grier in here.’ Quentin goes, ‘Oh Pam Grier. Oh my God …” He comes over to me and says, ‘I’m writing something for you based on Rum Punch, the Elmore Leonard book. And I’m going to send it to you as soon as I finish.” And I went, “Yeah right, sure.” And he said, “No, no — seriously, seriously.” He’s in tennis shoes, shorts and a T-shirt, wild hair and he’s just filled with excitement. He says, ‘You’re badass. You stand up for women. You get up and you put your neck on the chopping block. You know you really try to set examples, show people that it’s okay to win. It’s OK to fight.” And I said, “Wow, OK. I look forward to seeing the script.’ But what I was really thinking was, ‘Oh please let it be true.’
“Six months later, I’m in New York and I get notice there’s an envelope with insufficient postage, where you get that sticker. Back home in Colorado, they trust you and deliver the package, but in New York, they want that dime and nickel. It’s from Tarantino and it’s Jackie Brown. And I’m speechless. My face is just wet, from crying. I’d done four years of theater and was so grateful because I was ready. I had never felt so observed by anyone in my life. He has broken down every film I’d ever done.”
When not working, Grier spends most of her time in Colorado, where she might be one of the few women of color adept at driving an oversized vehicle with a John Deere logo on it. She has been an activist for local farmers and animal rights. While Hollywood is obsessed with sexual harassment, Grier’s greater concern is a resurgence in racism.
“I am staying with a friend, and a man says, “Nigger, move your car.” Someone spat out of a pickup truck onto my car and was inciting me to jump out and say something, fight, kick their car, whatever, so they could shoot me,” she said “I’ve never seen more Confederate flags in this neighborhood. Black people won’t get gas after dark, except maybe in New York and Los Angeles.”
Grier grew up in the Jim Crow era and early in her life, she recalled the time when black women didn’t dare try on clothes in a department store dressing room. They took the clothes home and returned them if they didn’t fit. Once, when she was rising as an actress, a belligerent and racist flight attendant tried to boot her from her first-class seat, embarrassing Grier until other passengers intervened. She fears some of it is coming full circle.
“There are things we have to do to protect ourselves in a climate where people are facilitating hatred and discrimination,” she said. “This support of white supremacists reminded me of the ’60s and Jim Crow and all we left behind. Within Los Angeles and the industry, people don’t see it, but I live in the Heartland and I see it. I’m very community minded. I’m an activist. And then I hurt more and I cry more when I hear people calling me a nigger to my face. What did I do to deserve you to say that to me? When I’m helping probably more white people than black people right now.
“Well, I won’t let it hurt me,” she said. “It’s gonna take a whole lot more than that to hurt me, after all I’ve been through.”