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Culture / Newsy

A Hollywood Legend Sticks Up for Charlie Sheen, Talks About Her Surprise Near-Marriage and Gets Suits to Care

BY // 12.03.15

The voice fills the phone, projecting power and mischievousness at the same time. “Would you like to talk to Pam or one of the other animals in the barn?” Pam Grier says, laughing.

The Hollywood pioneer is unburying herself from 18 inches of snow at the moment — a price she happily pays for living far outside the Los Angeles celebrity bubble on a farm within relatively easy driving distance (at least, most days) of Denver. And her good cheer remains unfazed by the near avalanche of fluffy white stuff. It’s easy to imagine a 66-year-old Pam Grier frolicking in the fresh powder with her horses.

But for now she’s standing up for two-legged animals.

“He needs to know that he’s not alone,” Grier says. “That there are people who will stand with him. That’s what the people willing to extort him over his illness preyed on — the idea that no one would be there for him.”

Grier is talking about Charlie Sheen and the actor’s public revelation that he has HIV. For Grier — who’s crafted one of the most extraordinary and unique Hollywood careers ever, going from blaxploitation films to a Golden Globes-recognized role in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown to The L Word — this is personal. She doesn’t know Sheen. They never starred in anything together.

But Pam Grier knows pain. She knows what it’s like to be sick and alone.

“I lost friends,” Grier tells PaperCity. “My boyfriend abandoned me.”

This is what Grier faced when diagnosed with cancer, a relatively stigma-free disease. She’s seen how people run from pain — and knows that the specter of AIDS brings a whole other added dimension of backlash. She’s been up close to that, too.

“Personally, I’ve lost close friends to AIDS,” Grier says. “And I didn’t even know they were suffering. Too many people suffered in silence with this disease. That’s why I’m trying to do my part to battle this virus. I have been ill. I understand suffering. I hate suffering.”

That’s why Grier left her Colorado farm and hit Houston Tuesday to deliver the keynote speech at a World AIDS Day Luncheon. Grier has been the spokesperson and public face of Dining Out For Life for five years and counting — and to say she takes the responsibility seriously is like saying that Patriots coach Bill Belichick is a little dour.

Charlie Sheen's HIV revelation caught the attention of one of Hollywood's most influential women. Photo courtesy of F/X.
Charlie Sheen’s HIV revelation caught the attention of one of Hollywood’s most influential women. (Photo courtesy of F/X)

Grier does not just advocate for Dining Out For Life — an event where participating restaurants (often upscale spots) donate 25 percent of their food and beverage sales for a specific day to help those suffering from HIV/AIDS. She often personally sells it, popping into restaurants in whatever city she happens to be in on Dining Out For Life days and urging businessmen at lunch to participate.

“I go right up to the table, always half-expecting to be cussed out or told to go away,” Grier says. “But they almost all listen — and donate even more.”

One of the all-time smoldering sirens of cinema still holds sway over men. Grier is simply too passionate to turn away. Sheen has found himself a powerful ally — even if he doesn’t know it yet.

“I believe Charlie can help others by speaking out,” Grier says. “I hope he finds the support system he needs — and knows that there are people willing to help. This is no joke. Charlie likes to have fun, but this is something to take seriously.

“It took some strength for him to speak up. Obviously, as he said, he paid millions and millions of dollars to try and keep this secret over the years to people who seized on this to extort him. But that never works. Secrets help no one. Now, he has the chance to help — and get the help that he needs.”

Pam Grier knows about Tinseltown journeys and second lives. Her life thus far has been as interesting as anyone’s, even Sheen’s, albeit without quite the same level of mindless partying he has indulged in. Pick out a seminal figure from the past 40 years, and chances are, she has a story about them. Take Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose HBO documentary is gaining the NBA legend new notice.

Grier and Abdul-Jabbar came close to getting married, but after he converted to Islam, his views on women transformed, according to Grier, and she decided she could not go through with any wedding plans.

“I haven’t seen the documentary, but I’ve heard it validates a lot of things I thought about how he changed after converting to Islam,” Grier says. “I never could get a straight answer from him on what my role in a marriage would be and if we’d be equal.”

Grier — a feminist before she knew what that term even meant, a woman whose grandfather pushed her to be just as forceful as the boys and the first real female action hero, in Tarantino’s opinion — wasn’t about to fade into the background for any man. Even if she was in love.

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“My grandfather taught all of his granddaughters to fish and to shoot,” Grier says, her laugh booming over the phone. “He told us we could do anything the boys could do. He really was the first feminist.”

That paved the way for Grier to become the kick-butt star of films such as Foxy Brown. In turn, she in many ways set the stage for the recent wave of female action roles — from Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road to Scarlett Johansson in Lucy and The Avengers series.

“I love them all,” says Grier, whose best-selling autobiography, Foxy: My Life In Three Acts, has been optioned for a future movie. “The more women kicking butt the better. I guess I do take a little pride in helping to start that.”

Grier isn’t one to obsess over Hollywood and her place in it, though. That’s why she is standing in a foot and a half of snow. This is someone who once turned down a prime role in a Tim Burton movie — one of her dream directors — because one of her beloved dogs had died and she needed time to grieve.

“He didn’t leave my side when I had cancer,” Grier says of the dog. “He slept on me and kept me warm. I had to be there for him when he was gone. I needed to honor his loss.”

Grier does not tolerate suffering. She will stand strong for Charlie Sheen or anyone else in pain who needs her.

Right now, that happens to be some horses. “I need to go feed these animals,” Grier says, and in another moment she’s gone, back to the non-Hollywood life few could have imagined for her.

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