Important People: Rosey Grier

In the early seventies my dad was the bureau chief at KPIX, the local CBS News affiliate in San Francisco. Eventually he moved across the bay into the city after he and my mother separated. On certain weekends my sister and I would go stay with him, although since his job was so unpredictable there were a lot of weekends during which he had to work some of the time. So we’d go hang out at the news bureau while he was doing his job. Usually it was kind of a boring place to be, especially on the weekends. If we were lucky we’d get to watch a film editor manually feeding film through a projector and painstakingly cutting it together. Other times we’d watch my father cram himself into a tiny soundproof booth and read lines of his script over and over and over again into a large microphone. We saw the same guys working there; it seemed to be all guys back then. There was a lot of brown polyester and impressive sideburns.

One day we were killing time at the bureau and my dad said, “Hey, kids, there’s someone here today who I want you to meet.” As he led us down the hall to a studio I couldn’t imagine who it was. Stepping into the doorway my eyes fell upon the largest human being I had ever seen. I also recognized him. It was Rosey Grier.

Rosey Grier was by that time a retired football player, having played pro ball for the New York Giants and then the Los Angeles Rams from the mid-fifties to mid-sixties. But in many ways that aspect of Grier’s career and life was just a prelude. Retired football players are a dime a dozen. Rosey Grier was something else altogether.

I remember being led toward Grier and watching him rapidly and completely filling my frame. Grier was the original widescreen. He was to me, as an eight-year-old girl measuring in at around four feet tall, like a human Matterhorn. At 6’5” and around 300 lbs., he was imposing to say the least. He was also a celebrity.

In 1972 the album Free To Be… You and Me came out. I have read articles about the summer that The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album appeared, about how one could not walk down the streets of a major city without hearing it flowing forth from every other window. For the lunchbox-toting circles I ran in, Free To Be… was our Sgt. Pepper’s. Everyone’s parents had bought it. The album was a musical refutation of gender and racial stereotypes, a tuneful call for personal and societal acceptance of the self and of others, featuring a who’s who of that era’s stars of popular culture, including Mel Brooks, Carol Channing, Tommy Smothers, Dick Cavett and Diana Ross, to name just a few.

The album was uneven, reflecting the varying musical talents of its guest stars. No track was as awkwardly sincere and charming as Grier’s semi-tone deaf rendition of “It’s Alright To Cry.” As such, it was one of the best tunes on the album.

I was about to meet a star. Not exactly one of my idols, but a man who’d figured largely in my rather limited cultural development. But he was frightening. It had nothing to do with the fact that I was white and rarely saw black people. That wasn’t it. It was the fact that he was a giant.

Grier is a fascinating figure if you even begin and conclude your reading about him at his Wikipedia page. After retiring from football he worked security detail for Bobby Kennedy and was there when Senator Kennedy was assassinated. My dad covered that story, so it’s possible they’d met at some point in the late sixties.

The former defensive tackle had obviously had some experience dealing with small children. I could sense him trying to draw physically into himself, impossible as that was, even as he extended his personality outward to welcome me. “Julie,” my dad said. “This is Rosey Grier.” I knew that. Grier put his hand out and I reflexively offered mine in return, placing it into his. It was like laying my hand in the center of the world’s largest catcher’s mitt.

By 1972, the year I met him, Grier had already been recording music for well over a decade. Eventually he became a fixture on television, with a range that included drama, comedy, variety and game shows. That was also the year his first movie came out, a wonderfully well-intentioned low-budget disaster about racial bigotry called The Thing With Two Heads. I did not know of this movie at the time, but years later I would come to discover it in a Staten Island video rental store.

Back in the studio at KPIX, as Grier’s massive, warm hand closed around mine he said, “I’m so pleased to meet you…” in a booming voice that he’d somehow attenuated down to a near whisper. I felt bad about being afraid, because the guy was just so nice. I decided that he was okay and that he probably wasn’t going to rip my arm off. I don’t remember anything after that; so primary is the memory of my hand in his.

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