'Milk' advisor Cleve Jones is, in a way, just paying it forward

'Milk' advisor Cleve Jones is, in a way, just paying it forward
NOW AND THEN: Cleve Jones, left, stands beside his younger self, as portrayed in “Milk” by Emile Hirsch. (Phil Bray / Focus Features)

For Cleve Jones, gay rights activist, initiator of the AIDS Memorial Quilt and historical consultant on director Gus Van Sant's new drama, " Milk," a chance meeting on the streets of San Francisco more than 30 years ago changed the course of his entire life. "Everything that I've done, everything I've accomplished, everything I survived, so much of it really just goes back to meeting Harvey Milk on the corner of Castro and 18th," said Jones. "I think of that every day."

Born in Indiana and raised in New York, Pennsylvania and Arizona, Jones came out when he was 17 and joined Gay Liberation Arizona Desert. The son of two politically engaged academics, Jones grew up protesting the Vietnam War and marching with farm workers.

After graduating from high school in 1972, he headed to San Francisco and met Milk, who would soon become the first openly gay high-ranking public official when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

"Harvey was the one who got me interested in electoral politics, whereas before I'd been much more radical," he said. "And Harvey taught me a very important lesson. As much as I disliked and was frightened by heterosexuals, I went with Harvey to the union halls and the senior homes for bingo and the bus stops as he campaigned. What we talked about was crossing boundaries, finding vocabulary that would help us communicate to people who were at least superficially very different from us."

Some 30 years after Milk's assassination in 1978, Jones helped ensure that the film, which just opened in L.A., is true to the self-declared "Mayor of Castro Street."

Making connections: Jones was instrumental in bringing together Van Sant and "Milk" screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. "They brought Gus down to San Francisco 18 years ago [to make a film about Milk]," said Jones. "Gus and I actually lived together for a while -- he crashed at my apartment in the Castro. And then that attempt to tell the story fell apart, but Gus and I stayed friends. About three years ago, I met Dustin Lance Black, who came to my home in Palm Springs with a mutual friend. He knew a lot about Harvey and had spent time in San Francisco. He said he'd been wanting to write a screenplay since he was in high school, and I, of course, encouraged him. He finally showed me what he'd written at the end of February 2007, and on March 1, 2007, I took him to meet Gus. And I'd waited for 18 years, and then when it finally all lined up, it took 18 months."

Grass-roots approach: In addition to being the real-life version of the character played in the film by Emile Hirsch and performing his own on-screen cameo, Jones made his expertise available to every member of the cast and crew. "When we got the call sheet the first day, I looked down and I saw all the names of all the people associated with making this film and their jobs," said Jones. "And I just resolved that I would do my best to at least meet and have a conversation with every single person involved in the film. And I did and became friends with a great many of them. They were all so proud to be working on something that mattered."

Déjà vu all over again: Since Jones spent countless hours giving background for the script, his own personal memories often ended up on screen. "My favorite is Emile Hirsch activating my whole telephone tree," he said. "This was pre-Internet, and yet I was able to turn out thousands of people within an hour or two just by going to a pay phone with a pocketful of dimes with a list of people. And I would call everybody and ask them each to call 10 people, and they would each call 10 people. And it was incredibly effective. So I told them about that, and obviously I was happy to see that in there. And yes, I had hair just like that and those big, silly glasses!"

Lights, camera, activism: Castro Camera, Milk's business and de facto political headquarters, was re-created at its old address in San Francisco. "It was in the exact location," said Jones. "And all of us old-timers took the opportunity to sneak in there sometimes and just sit by ourselves. The security guards that were posted outside reported that all night long, people would come up, especially older gay men, and would look in the window and weep. So it was very, very poignant."

Let the sun shine in: On Jones' first day on set, Milk's presence was seen as well as felt. "The day we began production, it was just pouring rain, sheets of rain," he said. "And Lance picked me up at about 5:30 or 6 [a.m.], and we drove out to the location. As it happens, the way the schedule turned out, the first scene that we shot was Dan White declaring his candidacy for the Board of Supervisors, and we were supposed to start shooting at 8:30. And we were getting coffee, huddling under umbrellas. And at 8:30, the clouds briefly broke, the sun shone through and an enormous rainbow appeared over us."

Lytal is a freelance writer.