Beau Willimon needed some color for his hit Netflix series, “House of Cards,” so he decided to borrow from the story he knew best: his own.
The Oscar-nominated writer and producer, legally named Pack Beauregard Willimon, has a legacy of family history in the Palmetto State, with ancestors who have called South Carolina home for centuries. His connection with Furman goes back to his great-grandmother, and then to his grandfather, who became a well-known attorney in his hometown of Greenville.
“House of Cards,” which launched its third season on Feb. 27, tells a very different story of prominence, the story of a ruthless Congressman from Gaffney named Francis “Frank” Underwood, played by Academy-Award winning actor Kevin Spacey.
Frank and Furman come together in episode three of the first season, when Frank leaves Washington, D.C., to make an appearance in his home district, where a teenage girl, Jessica Masters, has tragically died in a car accident. The 17-year-old, a rising star, scholar and athlete, had been accepted to Furman on a full volleyball scholarship. After a sticky dispute with town fathers, Underwood tells her parents he’s spoken with the president of Furman and together they decided to establish a new scholarship in their daughter’s name.
Though it’s been more than 100 years since his first relative graduated, Willimon said his family’s ties to Furman stuck in his mind.
Willimon’s great-grandmother, Maud Pack Willimon, earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1902 from Greenville Women’s College, which later became part of Furman University. Her son, Henry Pack Willimon Sr., graduated from Furman in 1931 with a bachelor of law degree and went onto practice law in Greenville well into his eighties.
“My grandfather loved Furman,” Willimon said in a phone interview. “He loved Greenville.”
Willimon’s father, Henry Pack Willimon Jr., also grew up in Greenville prior to joining the U.S. Navy and becoming an attorney in St. Louis, Mo. He played a key role in establishing Underwood’s roots on “House of Cards.”
Beau Willimon thought Frank Underwood needed to come from a relatively small town in South Carolina, so he asked his father, Henry, for ideas. “What about Gaffney?” his father replied.
After visiting Gaffney and meeting with the mayor and county administrator, Willimon’s mind was made up and Frank’s hometown was settled.
Due to production costs, crews weren’t able to come South for the taping, he said. Instead, Gaffney scenes were shot in Maryland, in Aberdeen and in Havre de Grace, a town on Chesapeake Bay.
Still, Willimon’s ode to the South comes out strong in the series, with pitchers of sweet tea and plates of barbecue popping up regularly. There’s even a framed picture of the Gaffney peachoid water tower hanging in Frank Underwood’s office in Washington, D.C.
“I’m thrilled by the response to the series,” Willimon said. “We’ve gotten great response from people all over the world.”
Willimon’s play, “Farragut North,” became the basis for the motion-picture screenplay, “Ides of March,” with George Clooney, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ryan Gosling, which earned Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Much of “Ides of March” and “House of Cards” was inspired by Willimon’s work on political campaigns for Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Bill Bradley and Howard Dean. Willimon, a St. Louis native, earned a master’s degree in playwriting from Columbia University’s School of the Arts in 2003.
Despite his growing fame, Willimon’s connection to Greenville has stayed strong. His family keeps a goat farm just outside Greenville, along with two donkeys, Jack and Jenny, which Willimon visits regularly.
“I love my iced tea. I have been known to eat grits,” said Willimon, who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. “And I have to admit I have a fondness for barbecue…”