The ‘Oz-like land’ of the man who inspired ‘The Butler’

Updated
Eugene Allen, 88, a retired White House butler, who has served eight presidents, tries on his old tuxedo.
Eugene Allen, 88, a retired White House butler, who has served eight presidents, tries on his old tuxedo.
Kevin Clark/Washington Post/Getty

Buzz is building around the new film, The Butler. But NBC News’ Peter Alexander turned the attention on the man behind the story, Eugene Allen, and the reporter who first brought his story to the masses.

Wil Haygood told the tale of Allen’s years of service on the front page of the Washington Post a few days after the 2008 election of Barack Obama. Now an associate producer for the film, Haygood explained that his quest to find someone to speak to the momentousness of the Obama election led him to Allen.

“I wanted to find somebody who had worked in the White House during the era of segregation in this country, before the big civil rights bills were passed in 1964 and 1965,” Haygood told Alexander on Wednesday. “I thought if I could find such a person they could really illuminate what a moment might mean to generations of Americans.”

In his conversations and visits with Allen, Haygood remembers the moment when he earned enough trust to be led into the basement. Once there, “it was as if I had been transported to some Oz-like land” filled with photographs of presidents spanning from Eisenhower to Nixon, to various stars who visited the White House during Allen’s tenure.

What struck Haygood most was Allen’s answer when asked if anyone had ever approached him to write or report about his life. Haygood recalled: “[Allen] took a step closer to me and he said, ‘Well if you think I’m worthy, you’ll be the first.’…I was getting tears in my eyes because he did not realize his life so was important.”

Watch the rest of the interview here:

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The 'Oz-like land' of the man who inspired 'The Butler'

Updated