In most cases, a novel or biography inspires a film. But for journalist and author Wil Haygood, the sequence has been dramatically different. A November 7th, 2008 article by Haygood in The Washington Post inspired the Lee Daniels film The Butler and then Haygood went back to write the book, The Butler: A Witness to History.
Growing up in Columbus, Ohio and graduating from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, Haygood took his first job in journalism as a copy editor at The Charleston Gazette. It was while here in West Virginia where Haygood began focusing on arts and human interest stories. Eventually, he went on to jobs in larger markets like Pittsburgh and Boston before winding up in the nation’s capitol at The Washington Post.
While on the presidential campaign trail in 2008 following then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama, Haygood turned his attention to other timely and culturally relevant topics.
“I wanted to find somebody—an African American—who had worked in the White House during the era of segregation because I thought that story, juxtaposed against the story of the first African-American president in the country, would be a pretty powerful story,” he said.
So Haygood launched a nation-wide search to find a subject that could illuminate the historical gravity of what he saw as Obama’s impending victory.
“I was essentially looking for a ghost, because I didn’t have a name. Eventually somebody in Florida mentioned the name of Eugene Allen and told me he lived in the Washington D.C.-Maryland region and I tracked him down,” said Haygood.
Unraveling the story of the now famous butler took a special level of care Haygood had rarely—if ever—experienced before.
“My grandparents raised me, so I lived in their house as a kid and knew the value of being patient. Mr. and Mrs. Allen were elderly people by the time I reached them, so I kind of had a sense that it might not be the best thing to sit down and try to grab information from them,” said Haygood.
“They wanted to watch a couple of TV shows—game shows—before we actually got the interviews underway. There were several hours before he took me down in the basement and showed me this room with all sorts of memorabilia.”
By the end of the day that his original article was published—a mere three days after Obama’s win—calls began to pour in from Hollywood executives. Haygood said it was partly a matter of timing mixed with a cultural and historical juxtaposition too important to ignore.
“Here was a character that had seen vivid American history up close. He lived at the most powerful address in the country, yet in the ‘50s and early ‘60s he could go to his native Virginia and have to use a segregated bathroom,” he said.
“So, the twin engines of those two narratives—Obama winning and Mr. Allen’s life story—I think proved to be a real magnet for Hollywood interest.”
Haygood was enlisted as a researcher and associate producer for Lee Daniels’ film The Butler. He said the experience of working with Oscar winners like Forrest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and Robin Williams was difficult to believe.
“I don’t think anyone can ever say that they dreamed of being on a movie set with six Oscar winners making a movie based on a story that they wrote. It’s just too unreal to think that. There’s some mornings that I still have to pinch myself,” explained Haygood.
As production on the film began, Haygood decided to put together a full-length written treatment of Eugene Allen’s incredible story. Haygood’s book, The Butler: A Witness to History, was released in June and Lee Daniels’ film adaptation of the story was released in August.
Through it all, Haygood said he cherishes the opportunity to meet and tell the story of the White House butler who endured eight presidencies and witnessed the moments that shaped our nation and culture.
“It was a pretty astonishing find to come across a man that nobody knew about who had almost had this Forrest Gump-like life. He was there during all of these epical moments of White House history for 34 years. It was just a special, special story to do,” he said.
Haygood has also written award-winning biographies on the enigmatic New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and famed member of The Rat Pack Sammy Davis, Jr. His latest book, Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson, is currently in the developmental stages for a film.