Has he ever not been famous, not been lurking alongside one national figure or another, not been caught in leftover attention? How far back does this go?
Well, it goes back to the mid-1960s, when the civil-rights movement and the Watts riots that coincided with Grier's trade to Los Angeles began opening his eyes. Even though he had been named Roosevelt after FDR, he wasn't born politicized. But all the social heat of the '60s had a galvanizing effect on him. He was about to retire from football, was unanchored in life and was available to any heady mix of useful ideas and glamour that might present itself to him. Like, say, Robert Kennedy.
Grier supported Kennedy because the presidential candidate shared many ideals and characteristics with the late President John F. Kennedy. In 1967 Ethel Kennedy, Robert's wife, invited Grier and other celebrities to a fund-raiser in Washington. Then as now, it was common to throw in an Ann-Margret for every Whizzer White. But Grier and Kennedy hit it off well, and they became friends.
(Here we must tell one small story that indicates Grier's ability to mingle effortlessly in both politics and entertainment. The night of the fund-raiser, Grier and others retired to the house of Averell Harriman, then U.S. ambassador-at-large. There Rosey met the singing duet Peaches and Herb, and they stayed up harmonizing until 5 a.m., when the 76-year-old Harriman began banging on the floor to silence them. Thus was born that expression about show business and politics: strange bedfellows.)
The friendship between Grier and Kennedy grew stronger when Grier decided he would campaign for Kennedy for president. Kennedy called on him often, sometimes to act as security, sometimes to come up and sing Spanish Harlem at his rallies, sometimes to speak when Kennedy couldn't attend. "It was an incredible time," Grier says. "I'd say, 'Don't call me up there; I can't talk.' But he made me believe I could make a difference. I would do anything for him."
Grier suddenly found himself purposeful. "Little by little," he says, "I got my own passion for America."
It was an exhilarating time. Right up to the moment in June 1968 that Kennedy won California's Democratic primary and, with his unofficial bodyguard right there, was assassinated in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. It was odd, when you think about it, that among Kennedy's last words to the crowd celebrating his victory in the hotel were these: "Rosey Grier said he would take care of anybody who didn't vote for me." And yet Grier helped to wrest the gun from Sirhan Sirhan, putting it in his pocket and, odder still, protecting Kennedy's assassin from the mob, taking care of him.
Whatever passion Grier had gathered departed him that night; he was hollowed out. "A big hole in my dream," he says, "and I didn't see how I could fill it." What followed were 10 strange years during which he flitted from one medium to the next, displaying that Grier flair for inadvertent fame but lacking involvement. There was the TV and film career (he had a part in the movie In Cold Blood to offset The Thing with Two Heads), born of that screen test for Daniel Boone, that kept him busy. There were record albums. He was on every talk show there was. He floated through life for that decade, carried on currents that invariably dropped him on the country's lap, whether he wanted that or not.
Like needlepoint. One day in 1970, a few years after his divorce from his first wife, Bernice, he noticed a gaggle of women in a Beverly Hills shop. At the time, he was always noticing women. On a whim, he parked his car to investigate so much well-maintained beauty, and he discovered that all the women were doing needlepoint. So he went from woman to woman, critiquing their work, until Babbs Shoemaker, then wife of jockey Bill, challenged Grier to take up the needle. He did, found it relaxing as well as a terrific way to mingle with ladies, and soon was in a photo spread in LIFE magazine. The book Rosey Grier's Needlepoint for Men came a little later, and he was famous again, this time for his stitchery.
A strange 10 years. "And I cried every day," he says.