Victor French spent 20 years as a TV villain before finding his warm-hearted niche on “Little House on the Prairie” and “Highway to Heaven.”
Actor-director Victor French (1934 – 1989) is known best for his roles on two television series, “Little House on the Prairie” and “Highway to Heaven.” In the former, he was a seemingly tough guy who actually had a soft heart. In the latter, he played the sidekick to an earthbound angel trying to prove his worth so he could enter heaven.
But French started his career “as a leading television villain,” as The Associated Press noted in his obituary. Michael Landon, the creative force and star behind both shows, was the person who saved French from “20 years of playing killers, rapists and every kind of villain and pervert known to man,” French told TV Guide in a 1985 interview, joking that “it had gotten to the point where crowds parted when they saw me coming.”
French, born in December 1934, grew up outside of Hollywood, where his father worked as an actor and stuntman in Westerns. The genre shaped French, who told The Washington Post in 1985 that he spent every Saturday at the theater watching Western matinees.
“I had parents with terrific values too. But that (the old Westerns) was what I was raised on,” he said. “The thing they taught us was respect for other people and their property. … You don’t lie, cheat or steal. I’m far from a saint, but those are my values.”
French, who also loved boxing, grew to become a large, burly man. Instead of climbing into a ring, however, French got an acting job that his father found him on Gunsmoke, where casting directors seeking mean-jowled villains looked at him and wrung their hands in glee, according to a 1987 article in the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail.
French appeared more than 20 times on Gunsmoke, which told the story of Marshal Matt Dillon and ran for 20 years until 1975. French also directed five episodes. The program did not shy away from gunfights and was later criticized for its violence.
French then went on to became a regular on Bonanza, a more family-oriented Western that aired from 1959 to 1973. That’s where he met Landon, who starred as youngest son “Little Joe” Cartwright.
Landon apparently noticed something special in French. “When he went off to do Little House on the Prairie, he wanted me for the show,” French said in the 1985 Post interview. During that show, and later during “Highway to Heaven,” French said of his relationship with Landon, “We spend more time together than a married couple.”
On Little House on the Prairie, French’s character, Isaiah Edwards, was a brusque, intimidating-looking man who had a tough life and sometimes struggled with alcohol and depression. At heart, however, he was a good person. He taught young Laura Ingalls how to spit. (Ma Ingalls was not happy about that.) He also risked his own life to deliver Christmas gifts to the Ingalls farm wearing only his long johns. (That move won him some of Ma’s affection.)
“Little House” ran from 1974 to 1983. French was on the show from 1974 to 1977, then left to star in the failed sitcom “Carter Country.” He returned to “Little House” full time in 1982, staying with it until the next year, according to French’s obituary in The New York Times.
In a 1982 interview with United Press International, star Melissa Gilbert said this about French: “Sometimes I get moody and depressed. Victor French, who plays Mr. Edwards, is a close friend. One day when I was feeling yucky he took me aside and asked what the matter was.
“I said, ‘How do you know I’m not in a good mood?’ And he said, ‘I’ve known you for nine years and I can tell when you’re feeling down.’
“That’s the good part of this show. Most of the cast have been with me since the beginning and so have about 20 members of the crew. We all love one another.”
On “Highway to Heaven,” Landon played a would-be angel named Jonathan, seeking to do right to enter heaven. French was Mark Gordon, his mortal sidekick. In a 1985 interview with The Associated Press, French described his role this way: “I’m the guy on the street who responds as the audience does. I’m a little sour on the world. He quit the police force because he felt criminals were getting the best of the system. He’s closest to me. We share most of the same values. I don’t have to make up stuff, the feelings are mine. I’m as moved by injustice, prejudice and pain as he is.”
French also shared directing duties on the show, helming every third episode. (Landon directed most of the other two-thirds.) “Highway” went off the air in 1989, and French died of lung cancer a short time later.
His last request, according to his Los Angeles Times obituary? Throw a big party.
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she’s now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, “Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone’s world that we’re often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we’re alive.”