With her '70s roles in Coffy and Foxy Brown, Grier created and defined the archetypal blaxploitation heroine: Sexy, self-assured and independent

Credit: Snap Stills/Rex USA; Jim Spellman/WireImage

Pam Grier needs no introduction – but you’re going to get one anyway. With roles in Coffy and Foxy Brown in the 1970s, Grier created and then defined the archetypal blaxploitation heroine: Sexy, self-assured and independent.

Grier was the first African-American woman on the cover of Gloria Steinem’s Ms., making her an early feminist icon; she still refers to Steinem as her mentor.

The movie Foxy Brown turns 40 on April 5. We spoke to Grier about the film’s legacy, Grier’s extensive charity work … and knitting. (Yes, you read that correctly.) At 64, she remains feisty, eloquent and as always, a whole lotta woman.

PEOPLE: Tell us about your work with Dining Out For Life.

Grier: “Whenever people ask about Dining Out For Life, I always ask them, ‘Have you ever been ill for seven days? And you had no food, no one brought you soup? You couldn’t get to the hospital? Well, think about that going on for years. For the rest of your life.'”

“The proceeds from Dining Out For Life, which this year falls on April 24, go to your local HIV/AIDS and cancer organizations to provide people with sustenance. Restaurants across the country – this year, there’s probably 3,000 restaurants in 60 cities – participate. Last year, we raised $4 million, but when someone brings you the gift of food, you’re getting something beyond that, something spiritual and profound.”

PEOPLE: You recently Tweeted about Peaches HotHouse in Brooklyn. Can you give us some other restaurant recommendations?

Grier: “Well, in Denver, we have Piatti’s, and Panzano’s. There’s a place in Chicago, Nonna’s, that’s fantastic. We’re going to be at Pinocchio’s in Palm Springs. I’ll be all over.”
PEOPLE: Sounds like you’ve got a lot on your plate.

Grier: “People ask me, ‘When do you sleep?’ And I say, ‘Well, every three days … maybe.’ But when you have to do things, and it’s in your heart … it’s not work. I’m a cancer survivor, and I remember what it meant to have people care for you, to take time off and to provide for you. Until you’re really sick, as I was for two years, you don’t realize how much sickness impacts people, and not everyone has someone to bring them a bowl of soup. So, I know what that means. I lived it. I survived it. And I made this promise to my soul and the souls of the universe, that if I survived this cancer, I was going to serve, and that’s what I’m doing.”

PEOPLE: So, the other big news is that Foxy Brown turns 40 this year.

Grier: “Yes! [laughs] And it’s been extraordinary … I love people who approach me with large Afros and leather pants. I was one of the children of the women’s movement – Gloria Steinem was my mentor – and Foxy Brown represented, for me, one of the first truly independent women in cinema.”

“I remember not being able to get into veterinary school. I was great with math and science in school, but if I walked in as a woman of color, I wasn’t going to get that position as a student. So, for the women who couldn’t vote or drive or get an education, Foxy was the voice that spoke for them.”

“I’ll never forget being in a classroom, and being told that Plato said women could be leaders. That was all she wrote! Women have done so much, and we can keep doing it, because it’s in our hearts to do it.”

PEOPLE: Who do you look to today as carrying on the legacy of people like Gloria Steinem and yourself?

Grier: “There’s Angelina Jolie. There’s our First Lady Michelle Obama – she gets out in the trenches, and whatever knocks she takes, she’s not about that; she has enormous energy. But there are so many of my contemporaries who work under the radar, who don’t have the press there for their work, who just go out and do it.”

PEOPLE: You’re a big animal supporter, too.

Grier: “Well, I work with several groups. One is PAALS For Life, for People And Animals Living Synergistically – they’re a nonprofit who pair senior citizens with senior animals. Elderly people who have lost their homes, and animals who have been abused, come to live at their locations and support and care for each other.”

“Then there’s Pilots N Paws, which pairs with pilots to transport animals out of no-kill shelters to foster care and adoptive homes. Last summer, we moved over 530 dogs out of Georgia, for example.”

PEOPLE: You mentioned to Oprah in 2011 that you love to knit. What have you been knitting lately?

Grier: “Afghans and hats. [laughs] They’re easy! My sister had a knitting shop in Colorado, and we would find these women who were living out on farms and bring them in to the shop, and we would all get together and knit caps and blankets for newborns and also for people going through chemo at hospitals.”

“We discovered there were a lot of women farmers, and we’d go out and meet with them, and they’d sell us wool from their sheep or alpacas. There’s a lot of single women farms out there who love being part of a grassroots, ground-up community like that.”

PEOPLE: Do you still have your black belt in barstools?

Grier: “Yes I do! Not only in barstools, but in skillets! I come from a long line of skillet-throwing women.”

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