The reigning queen of the 1970s blaxploitation genre, Pam Grier was born May 26, 1949, in Winston-Salem, NC. An Air Force mechanic's daughter, she was raised on military bases in England and Germany. During her teen years the family settled in Denver, CO, where at the age of 18, Grier entered the Miss Colorado Universe pageant. Named first runner-up, she attracted the attention of Hollywood agent David Baumgarten, who signed her to a contract. After relocating to Los Angeles, Grier struggled to mount an acting career, and worked as a switchboard operator at the studios of Roger Corman's American International Pictures. Finally, with Corman's aid, she made her film debut in the 1970 Russ Meyer cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, followed by an appearance in Jack Hill's 1971 cheapie The Big Doll House.
For several years, Grier languished virtually unnoticed in grindhouse fare like 1971's Women in Cages and 1973's Arena (aka Naked Warriors) before winning the title role in Hill's 1973 action outing Coffy. Playing a nurse seeking vengeance against the drug dealers responsible for her sister's descent into heroin addiction, Grier immediately rose to the forefront of the so-called "blaxploitation" genre, a group of action-adventure films aimed squarely at African-American audiences. Portraying the 1974 superheroine Foxy Brown, she became a major cult figure, as her character's fierce independence, no-nonsense attitude, and empowered spirit made her a role model for blacks and feminists alike. At the peak of her popularity, Grier even appeared on the covers of Ms. and New York magazines. Her films' often racy content also made her a sex symbol, and additionally she posed nude for the men's magazine Players.
Successive action roles as gumshoe Sheba Shayne in 1975's Sheba, Baby and as the titular reporter Friday Foster further elevated Grier's visibility, but fearing continued typecasting she shifted gears to star opposite Richard Pryor in the fact-based 1977 auto-racing drama Greased Lightning. She did not reappear onscreen for four years, resurfacing to acclaim in 1981 as a murderous prostitute in Fort Apache, the Bronx; however, no other major roles were forthcoming, and she spent much of the decade appearing on television and in straight-to-cable features. A major role in the 1988 Steven Seagal action hit Above the Law marked the beginning of a comeback, and after appearing in 1993's Posse, Grier starred with fellow blaxploitation vets Jim Brown, Richard Roundtree, and Fred "the Hammer" Williamson in 1996's Original Gangstas, a throwback to the films of the early '70s.
In 1997, the actress' career resurgence was complete with the title role in Jackie Brown, written in her honor by director and longtime fan Quentin Tarantino. Grier's tough, sexy portrayal of a jaded flight attendant earned praise from critics far and wide, as well as the promise of steady work. She could subsequently be seen in a consistently wide range of films, like Jawbreaker (1999), Holy Smoke (1999), The Invited, and Larry Crowne, in addition to a host of successful TV roles on shows like Smallville and The L Word.