Published August 13. 2013 4:00AM
When Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood approached Eugene Allen - an African-American man who was a White House butler for eight presidents, from Truman through Reagan - about interviewing him for a profile, Allen invited him to his modest Washington, D.C., home.
The living space had hardly any photos of his life in the White House. As the conversation wound on, though, Allen eventually took Haygood into the basement, which he kept under lock and key.
"He turned on this light switch, and you immediately got the feeling you were in a sacred place," Haygood says.
All around the room were photos of Allen, Zelig-like, with important figures in 20th-century America - the presidents, yes, but the first ladies, too, along with everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Elvis Presley.
Haygood recalls, "I turned to him, and I said, 'Mr. Allen, now are you sure no one has ever written a long narrative about your amazing life?' He took a step closer to me and put a hand on my shoulder. He said, 'If you think I'm worthy, you will be the first.'"
Haygood had to move away so Allen didn't see the tears in his eyes.
It's not just Haygood who thought Allen's story was worthy. So did Lee Daniels. The "Precious" director was so inspired by Haygood's article and Allen's life that he made a film about it.
"Lee Daniels' The Butler" opens Friday. And, last week, Haygood's companion book "The Butler: A Witness to History," became a New York Times bestseller.
"Lee Daniels' The Butler" is already attracting Oscar buzz, and its cast is filled with past Academy Award winners - Forest Whitaker as the character based on Eugene Allen (he's called Cecil Gaines in the movie), Oprah Winfrey as his wife, along with Robin Williams, Cuba Gooding Jr., Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. In addition to the six Oscar winners on screen, more than a dozen Oscar nominees worked behind the scenes.
"That's an awful lot of talent to have on one movie. I think that speaks to Lee Daniels - he's an amazing director - and I think it speaks to their desire to do this story," Haygood says.
Indeed, the life of Eugene Allen, who died in 2010 at age 90, was extraordinary. He grew up on a Virginia plantation and went on to work in the White House - starting as a pantry man washing dishes and rising, over his 34-year career, to maitre d', the highest butler position in the White House.
He was in the White House when the Civil Rights battles were being fought. He was there when America was entangled in the Vietnam War, where Allen's own son was fighting. The Reagans invited Allen to be a guest at a White House state dinner.
The day before Barack Obama was voted in as the first African-American president, Allen's beloved wife, Helene, died. Allen made sure to cast his ballot in the historic election.
If any editor had specifically assigned him to go out and find a person with such a story, Haygood says, he would have wondered what on earth they were talking about. But there Allen was.
"That's why they say real life beats fiction any day," Haygood says.
What inspired Haygood originally was he wanted to find someone who had worked inside the White House back when it seemed a black man couldn't become president. He was searching for someone who had been there as the country changed, who was a witness to history, as his book's title phrases it.
The notion grew after Haygood, while covering a 2008 Obama rally in North Carolina, came upon a group of young white girls crying because they were affected by the candidate's speech - and because they were upset by the angst their Obama support caused in their families. After talking to them, Haygood felt that Obama would, in fact, become president.
He began searching for that witness to history, and someone suggested Allen. Haygood has said that Allen's life was a "true American fable" in which "a humble and hardworking man pulls himself up by the bootstraps from the degradation of the Jim Crow South to the cool halls of the White House, asserting his rights as an American not by marching through streets but by striding those halls with quiet dignity."
About a year after Haygood's article ran, producers Laura Ziskin and Pam Williams met with him about turning the story into a feature film. Ziskin was passionate about the movie - so much so that, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she wanted assurances from everyone involved that they would continue to pursue the project. They did. She died in mid-2011; "Lee Daniels' The Butler" began filming a year later.
Haygood was an associate producer, and he spent time talking to the actors on set. He touched on his interaction with Winfrey in a Washington Post article about the filming. He recalled her asking him how one of her scenes was, and when he responded that it was beautiful, she replied, "Oh, thank you, honey." He remembered, too, her talking to him in character.
Haygood talked a great deal with Forest Whitaker. The actor wanted to know what Allen sounded like, how he walked. He wanted to know what Haygood learned as a researcher on the project; Haygood and screenwriter Danny Strong, for instance, got access to the White House kitchen.
Whitaker told Haygood this was the most difficult acting challenge of his life - which is saying something, since Whitaker won the Oscar for playing Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland."
The difficulty, he explained to Haygood, came "because it's a man who has to keep a lot inside himself. He said he had to do a lot of acting from the neck up."
He had to react differently to eight presidents, of course, and he had to play the character as he'd been both before and after the Civil Rights movement occurred.
Allen worked at the most powerful address in the world, yet, during the 1950s, he would leave the White House and return to his native Virginia and have to use a segregated bathroom.
"He had to shrink back into a man who was treated like a second-class citizen," Haygood says.
That's what particularly haunted Haygood about Allen's story and his life.
"Even when the laws of his country didn't love him and were not on his side, he still loved his country. That, to me, is the definition of a true patriot," Haygood says.
For the film, director Daniels shot scenes of the Civil Rights struggle. Haygood's mother and grandparents hail from Selma, Alabama, and he says, "It meant a lot to me to be the movie set."
"Lee Daniels' The Butler" already seems to be causing some Americans to rethink race and where the country is now, Haygood notes. And the timing of the release of the film is appropriate, since the country is marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and so many other landmark Civil Rights events.
Being on the movie set with the incredible cast, Haygood recalls, "I'm looking around and saying, 'This has to be a book. This has to be recorded.'"
Dawn Davis, who was just starting her own imprint at Simon & Schuster, heard about "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and phoned Haygood.
"She called me and said, 'Can you write a book about "The Butler" and the movie experience?' I said, 'I have been waiting on this phone call ever since we wrapped the movie there days ago,'" he says. "It was just perfect timing."