Born in Tampa, where her father worked as a stevedore and her mother as a maid, Thelma McQueen determined early in life to become a dancer. By age 13 she was living in Harlem performing with a dance troupe and theater company. While appearing in a 1935 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, she danced in the Butterfly Ballet, earning her professional name of Butterfly McQueen in the process (she hated the name Thelma and later had her new moniker legalized). Her first Broadway appearance in the 1937 George Abbott production Brown Sugar led to an even better assignment in the long-running stage comedy What a Life! This in turn led to her discovery by film producer David O. Selznick, who cast McQueen as the simple-minded slave Prissy ("I don't know nuthin' 'bout birthin' no babies!") in his super-production Gone with the Wind (1939). Though the role earned her worldwide fame, it also typecast her as screechy-voiced, hysterical domestics. Even so, she delivered memorable performances in such '40s productions as Cabin in the Sky (1943), Mildred Pierce (1945), and Selznick's Duel in the Sun (1946). Her inability to get along with most of her co-stars, coupled with her unhappiness over the film roles assigned her, prompted the actress to quit the movies in 1947. The ensuing two decades were not easy ones for McQueen; she was obliged to accept a dizzying series of clerical and domestic jobs, occasionally resurfacing in short-running stage productions and briefly co-starring as Oriole on TV's Beulah series. At one point, she served as hostess at the Stone Mountain Civil War Memorial Museum in Atlanta, GA. She returned to Broadway in 1964, and four years later scored a personal success with a tailor-made role in the off-Broadway musical spoof Curley McDimple. She came back to films in 1974 while pursuing a Political Science degree at New York's City College. In 1980, she won an Emmy for her performance in the TV special The Seven Wishes of a Rich Kid, and in 1986 made her final screen appearance (looking and sounding pretty much as she did back in 1939!) in Peter Weir's The Mosquito Coast. Butterfly McQueen was 85 when she died of burns sustained in a fire caused by a faulty kerosene heater.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Made acting debut in the 1937 Broadway play Brown Sugar.
- Was nicknamed Butterfly after dancing a butterfly ballet in the stage production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
- Had many concerns with her first movie role (which she initially hated): Prissy in the classic 1939 film Gone With the Wind. In the film's infamous birthing scene, refused to let costar slap her, so the actors faked the smack.
- Was introduced to TV viewers in the1950 ABC sitcom Beulah.
- Inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1975.
- Won a 1979 Daytime Emmy for her work as Aunt Thelma on the ABC Afterschool Special The Seven Wishes of a Rich Kid.
- Although it took her almost three decades and she attended five different colleges, she finally earned a bachelor's degree at the age of 64.