Butterfly McQueen, who played Scarlett O’Hara’s young, scatterbrained servant Prissy in “Gone With the Wind,” died Friday after suffering critical burns when a kerosene heater caught fire. She was 84.
McQueen told firefighters her clothes caught fire when she was trying to light one of two kerosene heaters in her one-bedroom cottage just outside Augusta. She was lying on the sidewalk when firefighters arrived.
She was taken to Augusta Regional Medical Center with second- and third-degree burns over 70% of her body and was listed in very critical condition before her death, said Butch Dorman, nursing director at the hospital’s burn center.
McQueen’s career spanned Broadway, the movies and television. But for better or worse, her immortality rested on her small role in the 1939 film that became an enduring phenomenon--by some measures the biggest movie hit ever.
It was a role no black performer could relish--a slave, and a dimwitted one who gets slapped by the heroine.
But few seeing “Gone With the Wind” could forget the half-pathetic, half-comic Prissy, admitting, just as long-suffering Melanie was about to give birth, that she had lied about being a midwife. “Miss Scarlett, I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies!”
“I hated it. The part of Prissy was so backward,” McQueen told an interviewer in 1986. “I was always whining and complaining. . . . But now I’m very glad I made the film because I make a living off it. You wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t been Prissy.”
In later years, she frequently made personal appearances in connection with the film, reminiscing and signing autographs.
Born Thelma McQueen, she got the nickname Butterfly early in her career after dancing the Butterfly Ballet in a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
She made her Broadway debut in 1936 in “Brother Rat.” The following year she gained critical attention and a shot at a part in “GWTW” for her performance as a comic maid in “Brown Sugar.”
She couldn’t attend the 1939 premiere of “GWTW” because it was held in a whites-only theater, but she was one of the honored guests at the 50th anniversary premiere.
After “GWTW,” she spent several years in Hollywood, appearing in such films as “Affectionately Yours,” “Duel In the Sun,” “I Dood It,” “Cabin in the Sky” and “Since You Went Away.” Mostly she played maids, and grew tired of the typecasting.
From 1950 to 1953, she appeared in the television comedy “Beulah,” one of the first shows to star a black performer. She played best friend to the title character, played first by Ethel Waters and later by Louise Beavers; predictably, both characters worked as maids.
“I didn’t mind playing a maid the first time because I thought that was how you got into the business,” McQueen once said. “But after I did the same thing over and over I resented it. I didn’t mind being funny, but I didn’t like being stupid.”
More recently, she had small roles in Broadway productions and in films such as “The Mosquito Coast” in 1986, and a public television production of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” also in 1986.
The daughter of a stevedore, McQueen was born in Tampa, Fla., and grew up in Georgia. She studied to become a nurse in New York, then took up performing when a teacher suggested she would be a good actress.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete.