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Frank Robinson: On Harvey Milk
by Andrew Davis
2008-11-19

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Living in San Francisco during the revolutionary '70s and co-writing a book that was made into a popular film ( The Glass Inferno, which was adapted into the movie The Towering Info ) would be enough to convince most people that Frank Robinson has lived an intriguing life. However, Robinson was also part of the inner circle of Harvey Milk—the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California who was assassinated in 1978.

The movie Milk ( based on the life of the late member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors ) will be released in several cities ( including Chicago ) next Wed., Nov. 26. The Chicago-born Robinson, 82—who was a bit role in the film—talked with Windy City Times about being in the film, meeting Harvey Milk and reacting to the news that his friend had been killed.

Windy City Times: What was your reaction when you found out there would be a film about Harvey Milk?

Frank Robinson: I was only mildly surprised but totally delighted because the idea of a movie about Harvey has been around Hollywood for a long time. [ Craig ] Zadan and [ Neil ] Meron bought the rights to Randy Shilts' book, The Mayor of Castro Street. Joel Grey, who played the role of the emcee in Cabaret, was angling for the role of Harvey—but he was six inches too short, and would have been badly miscast. Then, I read a couple of scripts that came my way; one of them, David Franzoni, who wrote the screenplay to Gladiator, had expanded my role—which was flattering but unnecessary—and he concentrated on the politics. Lance Black combined politics and the human viewpoint, and I was delighted when I read his script.

So, the possibility of a movie has always been there. There's been a play, a documentary, an opera and the movie was obvious from a dramatic viewpoint. There is nothing more dramatic coming out this fall—I don't care if it's about Bush or [ someone else ] .

WCT: You're originally from Chicago. Which neighborhood were you raised in?

FR: I lived up in Rogers Park, [ although ] I was born in the South Side. I picked up a master's in Northwestern [ University ] and lived up in Evanston, while I worked for Rogue and Playboy [ magazines, as well ] .

WCT: What was working as an advisor for Playboy like?

FR: Well, so your readers don't get the wrong idea, all the sex questions went to Masters & Johnson, our sex experts. All the legal questions went to the Playboy law department. The reason—and I think it's law—was because it's illegal to give medical or legal advice unless you have a degree. I was the guy who told you what kind of wine went with the fish.

WCT: What prompted your move to California?

FR: I moved here twice, fulfilling the statement that everyone moves to San Francisco twice: You move here, go home and then flee back to San Francisco. I came here the first time after Rogue magazine, a skin magazine put out in Evanston, folded. I [ moved ] out to Los Angeles first to work on a skin magazine called Cavalier. And when that failed, I went to see the hippies in San Francisco—and get laid a couple of times. [ Interviewer laughs. ]

Nicholas Hoffman of The Washington Post did a book on Haight-Ashbury. Haight-Ashbury was, essentially, my first childhood.

WCT: So you got a chance to sow your wild oats?

FR: One at a time, and not as frequently as you might thnk. It was—Good God!—Lord of the Flies, but only a little bit older. A lot of the kids were really nice, but a lot of them were runaways and, suddenly, there was no mother, no father, no school and no church; they balled each other silly, did drugs and probably came down with the clap more than once. Thank God AIDS wasn't around or you would've seen a whole generation wiped out.

WCT: And AIDS changed the landscape enough in the '80s and '90s.

FR: Yes, and [ back then ] you had a whole lot of things going on. You had the free-speech movement, the anti-Vietnam movement and you had the young kids coming out to the Haight. The Haight was originally populated by San Francisco State students, rock musicians and some of the overflow from Union Street, where you had the nude shows. Eventually, everyone ended up in the Castro, which was cheap living, but without the preponderance of young kids.

WCT: Where and when did you first meet Harvey?

FR: I was working on a book called The Glass Inferno, which was made into [ the film ] The Towering Inferno. [ Milk ] had run for supervisor once by the time I ran into him.

I had walked to the Castro for breakfast, and walked by the camera shop, and I fell into conversation with Harvey. I found out that he had run for supervisor once, and had gotten something like 15,000 votes, which I thought was really remarkable. He told me he was going to run again—which I thought was [ idiotic ] ; I was from Chicago, and the biggest thing that had happened there was [ a few ] people marching down Michigan Avenue to hold a kiss-in at City Hall.

WCT: People always hear the facts about a particular person or event, but they rarely hear about what a certain person was like? What was Harvey Milk like?

FR: Oh, Christ, man—that's easy. Harvey was immensely outgoing, immensely talkative, very knowledgeable about politics [ and ] very devoted to the idea of gay lib [ eration ] . His two big things about politics were registering you to vote and coming out. Of course, it was much easier to be out in the Castro than the world at large—and a lot of people admired Harvey because he was out in the big world at large; we were not.

Harvey was friends with everybody. He was one of everybody's best friends. If you asked me who Harvey's best friend was, I couldn't tell you. Harvey had his moments, but to the public he was always likeable, friendly and helpful.

I'll be honest with you: When you're younger, you're always looking around for gays who could be heroes to you. Harvey was my real-life hero. I feel about him like some people must feel about Martin Luther King.

He was a very brave man. For any kind of leader, the most important characteristic is personal courage. When Harvey debated Briggs up and down California, he received threats. Harvey really did feel he would be shot and killed, but he thought it would happen on the road. He gave me a copy of his last will and testament as well as a CD [ certificate of deposit ] , but I threw them in a drawer because I thought he was being morbid. I thought that Harvey must've viewed City Hall as a safehouse; there were cops crawling everywhere.

Initially, Harvey liked running for office more than he liked being in office. Harvey would give a speech and proselytize any group that number more than two. He'd come home, talking about this little old lady he got to vote for him. As I'm fond of saying at times, Harvey was the last of the storefront politicians—the guys who ran for public office because they knew everybody and had no money. Later on, we had a guy talk with us about what was necessarily financially to run for public office—and he started with 35 grand. Now, you could've added all of us up at the table and you couldn't come up with a grand, let alone 35.

The atmosphere was always very Don Quixote. We were very tight, we knew each other as friends—but we never expected that Harvey would win. It was just a lot of fun; when Harvey won, we went out of our minds. The [ people at the ] camera store were passing around bottles of champagne like they were Coke bottles. Everybody knew and loved Harvey, including people who just met him once. But suddenly Harvey was a winner, and you know what they say: Everybody loves a winner.

I mentioned before that Harvey changed from being a man who enjoyed running for office and being slightly bored when in office to a man who took the position very, very seriously. That was when he got into hardball politics. He was [ serious ] about everything from gay rights to passing the pooper-scooper law—which sounds silly until you realize that anytime you went walking through the streets of San Francisco, you'd have to clean your shoes once you got home. That got old very fast.

The big election was when Dan White quit, and then [ George ] Moscone had a board that was up for grabs; before Dan [ who was conservative ] quit, the board had a 6-5 conservative edge. Dan White then approached Moscone, who was a marshmallow of a politician, and moaned that he had to keep the office but Harvey approached Moscone and told him about the reality of life, which was that it was time for a liberal board. White didn't find out from Moscone that Moscone had changed his mind; he found out from a radio reporter who asked him for a comment. That was the first time he knew he had lost, and that's what set him off.

WCT: What stands out in your mind about Nov. 27, 1978?

FR: I was walking down Castro Street and somebody stuck their head out of a bar and hollered, "Harvey's been shot!" My first thought was that Harvey was in a hospital someplace and they were patching him up, and that we'd see him again in a week or two. Then the next thing that came was that both Harvey and the mayor were dead, and you were watching it on TV with Dianne Feinstein, who was in very bad shape.

As I recall, she discovered his body and had to announce it on TV. The lady went into atrial fibrillation; at the time she was on the tube, her heart was skipping at 200 beats a minute. I found that out when I had an interview with her about possibly replacing Harvey.

That day was catastrophic for everybody; it was unbelievable. A void had opened in everybody's life. At 7 o'clock that night, a spontaneous march started at—this is very difficult to talk about. [ Becomes emotional ] The march started at Castro and Market with all of us carrying candles; there was absolute silence. By the time we got to City Hall, there were 40,000 people in the march. There was a little bust of Lincoln by City Hall, and as we left, as I recall, Joan Baez was singing Amazing Grace. All of us doused our candles on the bust of Lincoln, and the next day there was this mountain of wax. All of us were crying [ that night ] . There were candles in the windows of the buildings we passed.

And it wasn't just gay people; it was a city. [ Crying while talking ] That's all I can say right now. Remembering it is painful. You get the emotions that come with the words.

WCT: It's certainly understandable.

FR: There's a preview in the Castro a month before the movie is released nationally, and all the people involved in it—including yours truly—will be there. Tickets are $50, and all the proceeds go to various AIDS groups in town—and the tickets are already sold out. I really don't know how it's planned out, but I think that they're going to call a group of [ Milk's associates ] on stage.

I was all excited about the whole red-carpet thing, and I'll wear my best-man wedding suit. Then I realized that all of this comes with a catch: The one guy playing himself in the movie is me and I'll be watching the death of my best friend and hero. By the time is over, I'm going to be a sopping mess. [ Voice wavers ] It's been 35 years and my feelings have not changed a bit, and that is remarkable.

WCT: What do you think Harvey would be doing today if he were still alive?

FR: Oh, that's easy. He was already planning his next run at City Hall, and he was already trying to get the people he ran against to be on his election committee. He would've run for mayor or state senator, in my mind. How far he would've gone beyond that, I don't know—but considering his knowledge and intelligence, I [ could see ] him in the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives. I think he would've gone that far.


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