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Eugene Francis, who played Algernon “Algy” Wilkes, one of the hooligans known as the “East Side Kids,” in four 1940s films and was a founding board member of the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, has died. He was 100.
Francis died Tuesday in Westwood, New Jersey, SAG-AFTRA Foundation spokeswoman Caroline O’Connor announced.
Francis also wrote for several TV series, including Justice, Appointment With Adventure, Matinee Theatre and The George Sanders Mystery Theater in the 1950s, The Loretta Young Show in the ‘60s and the animated show Calliope in the ‘80s.
Then 23, Francis was cast at the last minute as Algy, the son of a rich man who looks nerdy but packs a punch, in Boys of the City (1940), then returned for That Gang of Mine (1940), Pride of the Bowery (1940) and Flying Wild (1941). The low-budget films, produced by Sam Katzman at Monogram Pictures, also starred Bobby Jordan and Leo Gorcey.
The East Side Kids, growing up on the hardscrabble streets of New York City, were descendants of the Dead End Kids, who started out on Broadway and then appeared in a series of films in the mid-1930s, and forerunners of the Bowery Boys.
Francis replaced Jack Edwards, who had portrayed Algy in the 1940 film East Side Kids, and was paid $66 for six days’ work on Boys of the City, he told John Antosiewicz in a 2006 interview.
“I knew what I was getting into,” he said. “It was Gower Gulch-bottom of the barrel. The cliche in Hollywood at the time was if you were working in Gower Gulch, you’re either on your way up or on your way down.
“I’m a guy who likes rehearsing, but they didn’t believe in it. I don’t think Leo Gorcey could ever rehearse. He was pretty wild, and you never knew what was going to happen. … [Boys of the City] was junk. They were Poverty Row films, and no one wanted to be in them.”
In 1985, Francis was elected as a founding board member of the Screen Actors Guild Foundation (now SAG-AFTRA Foundation), and he served for 33 years as a board member, including a stint as treasurer, until his death.
“It was a privilege to know someone who had lived life so fully long before I met him and to work with him over these many years as he continued supporting his fellow performers. Gene truly never stopped,” SAG-AFTRA Foundation treasurer and fellow founding board member Maureen Donnelly said in a statement.
An advocate for children’s literacy, Francis helped establish the organization’s Robin Williams Center, which opened in the New York theater district in October 2016.
Born on Aug. 28, 1917, in Brooklyn, Francis appeared in the New York City repertory company of actress Eva LaGallienne when he was 12 and made his Broadway debut opposite Ethel Barrymore in 1934 in L’Aiglon.
He said he attempted but failed to get an audition to appear in Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End at the Belasco Theatre. The play wound up running for two years.
Leaving Algy behind, Francis spent five years in the U.S. Army during World War II and then was the voice and on-air personality for Goodyear Tires and Remington Shavers, Antosiewicz noted.
His time as an actor went back to the days of AFRA (the American Federation of Radio Artists) and the Television Authority, which merged to become AFTRA (the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists) in 1952.
Francis served more than two decades as a SAG national and New York board member and was elected to terms as recording secretary and national vice president.
Survivors include his son Stephen, daughter-in-law Bronwyn and grandchildren Harrison and Carson. The family asks that donations be made to the SAG-AFTRA Foundation.
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