Butterfly McQueen became best known as the whiny servant named Prissy from "Gone With the Wind." Unfortunately, she met a tragic end after a fire broke out in her one-bedroom home in December 1995.
Thelma McQueen was born in January 1911 in Tampa, Florida. Her father worked as a stevedore, and her mom was a domestic servant. Aged 13, McQueen joined a theater group in Harlem while staying in New York.
After attending public school in Georgia, she studied dance in New York, alongside Janet Collins, Katherine Dunham, and Geoffrey Holder.
Butterfly McQueen in a promotional photo for the Disney Afterschool Special "Seven Wishes of a Rich Kid" in 1979 | Source: Getty Images
HOW SHE GOT THE NAME
She earned the nickname "Butterfly" for constantly moving arms from dancing "Butterfly Ballet" in a 1935 production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Her Broadway debut came the following year in "Brother Rat."
While McQueen appeared on several other shows, the most famous one turned out to be the irresponsible and whiny Prissy of "Gone With the Wind." Prissy is a teenager in the book, but David O. Selznick insisted that she played the part of Prissy despite being 28 at the time.
Butterfly McQueen for "The Danny Kaye Show" in 1945 | Source: Getty Images
HER MOST FAMOUS ROLE
While she rose to fame because of Prissy, the actress once revealed not having wanted to play that role. In fact, she thought of Prissy to be a lazy character. She said:
"It was not a pleasant part to play. I didn't want to be that little slave. But I did my best, my very best."
Publicity portrait of Butterfly McQueen in 1939 | Source: Getty Images
PAVING THE WAY
As Prissy, McQueen emerged as one of the most beloved character actresses of all time. While the role wasn't pleasant to play, the actress also revealed that she never got tired of Prissy.
Despite the show's success, she could not attend the 1939 premiere alongside her co-star, Hattie McDaniel, because it was in a whites-only theater. However, in the show's 50th-anniversary premiere, she was one of the honored guests.
Actress Butterfly McQueen circa 1950 | Source: Getty Images
STANDING BY HER VALUES
Admittedly, the actress said that she made a living from the role and easily could have made a lot more money, but she turned down several parts.
The veteran actress did not mind playing a maid at first because she thought it was the way to into the industry. However, after doing the same thing over and over, she started to resent it. She did not mind being funny, but she did not like being stupid.
Vivien Leigh and Butterfly McQueen on "Gone With the Wind" circa 1939 | Source: Getty Images
REFUSING TO PLAY THE ROLE
McQueen refused to play servant roles in the latter part of her career. However, even when she did accept these roles, there was one movie where she found a line demeaning, so she refused to continue and walked off the set.
Although she did not have any children of her own, McQueen devoted her remaining years to the welfare of children.
Butterfly McQueen in a scene from the movie "Duel in the Sun" | Source: Getty Images
CHOOSING HER PROJECTS
The actress once admitted that she got offered parts in several films but only accepted those that didn't go against her beliefs. Speaking her choice, she once revealed:
"I can't be in them because of the language. Mr. Burt Reynold's asked me to be in 'Sharkey's Machine' but I heard there was a killing in that, so I said no."
Butterfly McQueen circa 1950 | Source: Getty Images
STEPPING AWAY FROM HOLLYWOOD
After starring on "Duel in the Sun," as a favor to "Gone With the Wind" producer Selznick, McQueen put Hollywood behind her. Traveling back and forth between New York and Georgia, she auditioned for parts in stage plays instead. She even took a course in nursing at Georgia Medical College.
In the 1950s, she returned to California to play Oriole in the TV series "Beulah," which lasted for three years. In 1974, she appeared on "Amazing Grace." The following year, she attended college at the age of 64.
Butterfly McQueen on her off-Broadway musical "Curly McDimple" in 1968 | Source: Getty Images
A TRAUMATIC ASSAULT
In 1980, a Greyhound Bus Lines guard mistook her for a snatcher. She was handled roughly and was thrown against a bench. The incident resulted in several cracked ribs.
McQueen sued for assault, and after several years in court, she was awarded $60,000. She then chose to live frugally on the money given to her and retired in a town just outside Augusta, Georgia, where she lived in a one-bedroom cottage.
HER FINAL PROJECTS
After the traumatic incident, she had more minor roles in Broadway productions and films in the late 1980s. She featured on "The Mosquito Coast" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" in 1986.
Although McQueen did not have any children of her own, she devoted years to the welfare of children. She patrolled the playground of a local school in Georgia, picked up trash, and watched out for the kids.
Butterfly McQueen in 1950 | Source: Getty Images
HER OWN CHOICES
The actress once gave a powerful line about her choice not to have children and said she was not "child-less" but "child-free." She believed she wasn't missing out on anything despite not having kids and that no one forced her into living that way.
Unfortunately, just three days short of Christmas 1995, the kerosene heater in her cottage caught fire. She suffered critical burns, telling firefighters that her clothes caught fire while lighting one of her heaters.
Butterfly McQueen photographed in a studio in Los Angeles, California on December 11, 1987 | Source: Getty Images
HER PAINFUL DEATH AT 84
By the time the firefighters arrived, she was lying on the sidewalk. Passers-by pulled her body out of the house after seeing her in flames.
They took the actress to Augusta Regional Medical Center, where medical personnel treated her for third-degree burns over 70% of her body. McQueen was in very critical condition before her death. Unfortunately, her body succumbed to her injuries. She died in the hospital at the age of 84.
Despite her untimely death, the actress is enshrined as an essential part of black history in Hollywood. She paved the way for many other women of color to join and do well in the entertainment industry.
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