Grier was born in Winston-Salem, NC, but moved frequently due to her father’s career in the military. She entered beauty contests and sang backup to Jimmy Womack before landing a job as a receptionist at budget-minded American International Pictures. After a bit part in Russ Meyer’s satire Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Grier starred in 1970’s The Big Doll House, a Philippines-shot “women in prison” picture. She followed it with two similar films (Women in Cages and The Big Bird Cage) and supporting roles in the bigger-budgeted Hit Man (a remake of Get Carter) and Scream, Blacula, Scream (a sequel to—what else?—Blacula). Her career got a boost when she landed a co-starring role opposite Margaret Markov in 1972’s Black Mama, White Mama, an above-average rip-off of The Defiant Ones that was co-scripted by future filmmaker Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs).
Grier followed up Coffy with Foxy Brown (1974), another violent revenge picture in which her heroine destroys a dope-prostitution ring responsible for killing her worthless brother and her undercover narcotics agent boyfriend. Although Coffy and Foxy Brown were both big hits, the blaxploitation genre began to receive criticism for its violence and promotion of African-American stereotypes. As a result, Grier played a private detective in the more subdued Sheba, Baby and a fashion photographer in Friday Foster (both 1975). Neither film did big business and, by 1976, the blaxploitation genre pretty much came to an end with martial arts-themed movies like Black Belt Jones. Grier’s career as a leading action star ended, too.
She got occasional supporting roles in mainstream movies: she played opposite then-boyfriend Richard Pryor in the stock car biography Greased Lighting (1977); she was a killer prostitute in the Paul Newman cop film Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981); she played the “Dust Witch” in the atmospheric Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983); and she was Steven Seagal’s partner in Above the Law (1988). She stayed busy with television, too, playing Philip Michael Thomas’ girlfriend in a few Miami Vice episodes.
But lead roles eluded Grier until Quentin Tarantino offered her the title role in Jackie Brown (1997). Tarantino had long admired Grier’s action films and he had considered casting her in Pulp Fiction. Her portrayal of a stewardess mixed up with an arms dealers and FBI agents in Jackie Brown earned her critical praise and a Golden Globe nomination. She subsequently returned to supporting roles, but continues to stay busy, having recently completed a long run in the TV series The L Word.
Pam Grier never married, although she has been romantically linked with Pryor and former basketball player Kareen Abdul-Jabbar. She is a cancer survivor. She was named as one of Ebony Magazine's "100 Most Fascinating Women of the 20th Century.”