Gene Francis Warren Jr., 1941-2019

Ron Warren

GENE WAS 21 months older than I, and because of this we were not only brothers but best friends and comrades, almost inseparable. Gene was my leader and mentor in the good and the bad while growing up.

Gene’s independence and wanderlust began at the age of three, when he and a neighbor girl took a couple of miles’ trek to Westlake Park (now McArthur Park). They were gone most of a day until a stranger brought them home. This was an early indication of the rebel life to be led.

We were lucky to be able to attend an integrated elementary school where, while the majority was white, classes would have Black, Latinx and Asian students, giving us an early grounding in the real world. Our junior high school was entirely white, except for one of Nat King Cole’s daughters and my friend from elementary school, the son of a well-known doctor.

Los Angeles was strictly segregated with racial housing covenants [i.e., clauses forbidding sales to nonwhites — ed.].  Gene and I both went to Los Angeles High School, which was maybe 30% each Black, Latinx, white and 10% Asian, mostly Japanese.

From his pre-teen years, Gene was interested in making movies. By the time I arrived in high school he was the stage manager, after a successful stint as lighting director. By this time both of us were attired in motorcycle boots, jeans, black t-shirts and black leather jackets with pompadours and duck tail hair-dos.

Being on the crew gave us the run of the school and we became the “rebels without a cause.” We were both on the “B” football team, being too small for the varsity. Actually neither of us finished high school, Gene leaving in the middle of the 12th grade and my being expelled at the end of the 10th.

But it was on the swim team that Gene excelled. He was a natural at springboard diving. In his senior year he took second in the LA city championships, only missing first because his final dive was new to competition at that time (forward two and a half).

This performance led to his training at the Los Angeles Athletic Club with the legendary coach Peter Daland and four-time Gold Medal winner Pat McCormick for the Olympics. Gene could have made it but did not have the discipline necessary to complete the training.

After working as a grip and dolly/crane operator for seven years, he joined our father’s visual effects company, Excelsior Animated Motion Picures. In 1980, with two partners, he founded Fantasy II Film Effects.

“Standing Beside You”

As Mike Davis writes in his tribute to Gene:  “…you could always count on him to be standing beside you.” Here is an instance that I remember from our younger days.

Along with two friends, we went to Bronson Canyon, a movie location with tunnels that appeared in many westerns, and decided to climb a cliff on the box end of the canyon. While one friend remained behind, three of us started up.

About six to eight feet from the top the rock began to crumble and fall away. Gene, being in lead as usual, scrambled up like a cat. But the two of us couldn’t manage. I was hanging onto a rock with barely my fingernails; our friend was hanging on to my boot.

Realizing the mortal danger we were in, Gene tore off the stalk of a yucca plant, laid down and I grabbed it to keep the two of us from falling. If we had tried to climb up the stalk Gene would have been pulled off and the three of us would have plunged the 100 feet to certain serious injury or death.

The only salvation was for my friend down below to go around the back way and hold Gene while we attempted to climb up. My friend made the slog up the back, taking about 20 minutes while Gene, never wavering, was holding the weight of two.

My friend laid on Gene’s legs and we were finally able to scramble up. This was what Mike meant by standing beside you, always to be counted on.

Gene’s Radicalism

Since Gene’s death I have been asked what was the source of his radicalism. I think part of it was instinctual, as we both from a very early age identified with and defended the underdog.

Both of our maternal grandparents were union members, grandma at the post office and grandpa on the railroad.

A good deal came from our stepfather. He was a secular Jew born in Brooklyn to recent immigrants from Poland. In the 1910s his father moved them from hovel to hovel just ahead of the rent collector. His mother had 11 children of whom only five lived to adulthood.

He hung around the Communist Party as many young people did, but never joined. We learned of Trotsky very early as he loved to tell us a story of going into the workers’ library and asking if they had any books by him and had to run for his life.

His best friend was a lifelong Trotskyist, though he was not. Our stepfather would quote passages from Capital and his friend related many of his political escapades. These things definitely had an influence.

Now to political activities. I think it was in late ’68 that Gene, Judi Shayne (my companion and future wife) and I attended the founding meeting of Friends of the Panthers that was organized by Elaine Brown and Don Freed. There were about 50 people in attendance.

In the top-down fashion of the time, Elaine noticed something I said and appointed me chair. This was the first time I had met Elaine and Don. Gene, Judi and I along with Don became the core of the Friends.
Judi and I, going to community college at the time and not working, became involved in a whirlwind of activities in support of the Panthers — organizing fundraisers, public meetings and other support work.

Although working, Gene organized with us the supply of some defensive materials and aided the Panthers as they fortified their headquarters with telephone books. We were sure at the time, and I still contend, that those fortifications saved the lives of the 11 Panther comrades inside during the five-hour military onslaught by the LAPD.

Not long after the organization of the Friends, we three became best friends and comrades of Milt and Edith Zaslow. After the disintegration of the Panthers due to the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation, Milt and many of us in the Friends organized a group, the Socialist Union, which actively supported and participated in the fight for civil rights and against the Vietnam War.

Longterm Activism

During this time we became involved in the 1970 wildcat Teamsters strike, a rare defensive victory. After Mike Davis’ call to come to the picket line, about six or eight SU members joined the injunction-limited picket line at Western Carloading.

Over the next few days, hundreds of students and activists converged on the lines. Those drivers who had gone back to work came back out. Gene proved he was the militants’ militant, always being the last to move from blocking the scab-driven trucks.

We were blocking scabs trying to enter another barn when a Teamster smashed a scab’s windshield and drove him away. The next car that approached was blocked by me and some Teamsters, at which time Gene opened his coat at the driver’s window to reveal a very large rock. The scab also took off. This was Gene’s nature.

We joined the Socialist Workers Party sometime in 1972 and were expelled in 1974 as part of the Internationalist Tendency. After the expulsion we, along with Milt, organized the Revolutionary Marxist Organizing Committee with some of the remnants of the IT. You can read about that history on marxist.org.

Working in both TV and the movies Gene and his partner, Leslie Huntley, won the Primetime Emmy Award for the TV miniseries Winds of War in 1983.

In 1992, 30 years after our father won an Oscar for The Time Machine, Gene captured one for Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The tradition has continued with his collaboration with his sons Gene Warren III and Christopher Warren. In 2011 they were nominated for their visual effects in the three Underworld movies. Gene was a cinematographer, model maker, sculptor and stop motion animator.

As time went on, Judi and I became somewhat less active, Gene never wavered, participating in the Workers Power organi­zation (1979-85) and the founding of Solidarity in 1986. He anticipated the “Battle of Seattle” and was there. Gene marched, organized, wrote and spoke whenever he could. Over the last 20 years he became active in ecosocialist projects.

Over his almost 60-year political and film career he exhibited unstoppable energy. He wrote several novels and screenplays, taught at the USC film school and developed a love of karaoke.

In addition to his sons, he is survived by his daughter, Amy Gilbert, nine grandchildren and three great grandchildren. It is difficult to accept that my brother is gone. He will be missed by many, especially me.

May-June 2020, ATC 206

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