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'The Butler' comes to the page and the screen

The story of Eugene Allen, a butler who served in the White House during the terms of eight presidents, has been adapted as a movie and a book.

By Staff Writer / August 5, 2013

Actor Forest Whitaker, who portrays the fictionalized version of Eugene Allen, speaks at a screening of 'Lee Daniels' The Butler.'

Barry Brecheisen/Invision/AP

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The story of Eugene Allen, a White House butler who served eight presidents (from President Truman to Reagan), is having his story adapted for the big screen, and now it’s also arrived on the page.

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Washington Post writer Wil Haygood found out about Allen in 2008 when he was looking for someone who had worked at the White House when segregation was still the norm in many areas of the country. Haygood wanted to speak with that person about how he or she felt about then-nominee Barack Obama taking part in the presidential election. Haygood's interview with Allen was published in the Post just days after Obama won.

The story of Allen's life is being released for the big screen by the Weinstein Company (and it’s titled “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” after the Weinstein Company and Warner Bros. got in a wrangle over the title, with Warner Bros. saying it had the rights to a movie title that was simply “The Butler”). Actor Forest Whitaker plays a butler named Cecil Gaines, who is based on Allen. Former talk-show host Oprah Winfrey plays Cecil’s wife Gloria, while various actors take on the roles of US presidents, including Robin Williams as former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. Actresses portraying First Ladies include “The Fighter” actress Melissa Leo as Mamie Eisenhower and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. In addition, “True Blood” actor Nelsan Ellis portrays Martin Luther King, Jr.

The movie is scheduled for an Aug. 16 release.

A book about Allen’s story and the film based on it, titled “The Butler: A Witness to History” and written by Wil Haygood, was released July 30. Kirkus Reviews called the book “poignant and powerful.”

“The book is brief, but the two sections and many images of Allen's quietly extraordinary life speak volumes about a nation struggling, and succeeding by degrees, to come to terms with an ignominious history of racial inequality,” the Kirkus reviewer wrote.

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