First she was Coffy. “The baddest one-chick hit squad that ever hit town.”
Then she was Foxy Brown. “A chick with drive, who don’t take no jive.”
Pam Grier was not just the most prominent female action star of blaxploitation movies of the 1970s, but also the first big box-office female action draw in all of film.
And yet, as she revealed in her 2010 autobiography “Foxy” and recalls in the bio film this week on TV One’s “Unsung Hollywood,” Grier’s string of roles as fierce women seeking vengeance could be tied to an early life in which she was abused both as a 6-year-old and as a teenage beauty queen in Denver.
When she moved to Hollywood, she was discovered as a receptionist at American International Pictures and became a star in a series of films that established her as a striking female heroine like no one had ever seen.
“She took the guns from the guys and used it against them. She took the power and used it against them. She took the sex and used it against them. Pam Grier changed the dynamics of black eroticism in the 1970s,” Michael Eric Dyson, the academic, author and sociology professor at Georgetown University, says in the “Hollywood Unsung” episode, premiering Wednesday.
“She commanded respect, as opposed to asking for it,” Snoop Dogg says in the film. “And to be a great actress on top of it, and not only that but to be the sexiest black woman to ever hit the screen. . . .”
She dated some of the most prominent figures of the time as well, from Richard Pryor to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Freddie Prinze.
And while she continued to work in smaller roles and in theater when blaxploitation movies fell out of style, Grier was also remembered such that Snoop Dogg put her in his “Doggy Dogg World” video and Quentin Tarantino wrote his 1997 movie “Jackie Brown” with her in mind. She spent six seasons as a matriarch on Showtime’s “The L Word”
But even as she prepares for a new TV role, as a homeland security agent for a show in development, Grier at 64 denies that she is in any way an icon.
“Oh no,” she says, doing publicity in Pasadena for the TV One film. “I refuse. It’s so hard to be an icon. My mom says, ‘She does the dishes for me.’ You know, if people knew.”
There was something formidable about Grier with her gun and bikini in those ads for “Coffy,” “Foxy Brown” “Friday Foster” and “Sheba, Baby.”
But, she says, “basically the first feminist in my family and my life was my grandfather, Daddy Ray. And he wanted all the girls to do everything the boys did. So he taught me hunting and fishing and shooting, riding a tractor, driving. And it was equality that was the real purpose for me. And I translated that to film.”
She thought of her family when she played the larger-than-life characters she is best known for. “Foxy Brown was a fighter and so was I,” Grier writes in her autobiography. “While my role in ‘Coffy’ had reminded me of my mother, a nurse who stood up for herself, Foxy Brown was my Aunt Mennon, who had a bad temper and was quick to pick a fight.”
Her leading movie roles dried up in the ’80s for a number of reasons. “I’m marginalized,” she says. In going for roles, “right now we try not to think of being black or white, just a female who brings craft.” But that’s not always how producers see it.
Nor has she accepted all the roles offered to her, saying she “chose not to do a lot of roles because they didn’t interest me, because they were victimization, and I just didn’t want to do them.”
But, she adds, “would I have done the roles that Meryl Streep did? No, they were going to have Meryl Streep do those roles. So there’s certain dynamics called box office. And so if you can fill the seats — it’s a business. It’s not about art or politics, it really is a business.”
When she was first cast as “Coffy,” she says, it wasn’t a role everyone was clamoring to do. “Women didn’t want to do ‘Coffy.’ It was written for a Caucasian woman — to do stunts, hold a gun, you know, and a heavy form of karate or kung fu or jujitsu or aikido, or whatever they’re going to do. I learned that on a military base.” (Her father was an Air Force mechanic who bounced around and eventually raised the family in Denver.)
She brought those skills as well as a simmering personal story to the tales of revenge and justice.
“I brought a lot of my own narrative to the work, which kind of propelled me,” she says. “But it probably inspired a globe of women to be themselves, which is great.”
In addition, it helped actresses from then on “walk with confidence and not be judged as being, ‘Oh, you do stunts, so you must be a lesbian.’ You know, crazy stuff that you never believe people would judge, but they do,” Grier says.
“But as we get roles and do roles and redefine ourselves, people are educated and they find a comfort zone. Barriers are down. Women are free to be themselves, whether they’re gay, whether they’re masculine, whether they’re feminine, whether they’re right or left or liberal or conservative.”
As tough as she is onscreen, Grier comes off as fairly shy, someone who would just as soon be on her Colorado ranch as on a red carpet. She says it took her a while, too, to begin her autobiography.
“It took me four years to be able to create a confidence to reveal some of the most intimate and painful elements of my life,” Grier says.
She says she had been approached before by film companies hoping to do a documentary on her life. “I turned them all down because I just didn’t like how they were going to present my life.”
But, she says, when she heard from TV One, which explored musicians’ lives in the popular series “Unsung,” Grier says, “I was so impressed how they really embraced our history.”
A film adaptation of the biography “Foxy” is in the works, as is a TV action series called “Black Hawk,” in which she would play a former homeland security agent pulled out of retirement to fight domestic terrorism.
No matter what she does in her career, Grier will likely be recalled as Foxy Brown. “If that’s what I have to bear, I will gratefully,” she says. “I just want us to continue to grow and explore and discover who we can be.”
(one hour) premieres Wednesday
at 10 p.m. on TV One.