Victor French was one of those performers whose success in the entertainment industry one could hardly keep a tab on, for spiralling out of control. His extensive career cut across acting on stage, film and television as well as directing. He excelled in Westerns, mostly playing the bad guy, probably for being a hunky and having gruff features. He is known for roles on such TV shows as Little House on the Prairie, Highway to Heaven and Carter Country. Here is a lowdown on the actor and director.
Victor French Biography
The western maestro was given birth to on the 4th of December, 1934, in Santa Barbara, California and was named Victor Edwin French. He is the son of Ted French, an actor and stuntman who rose to fame in the 40s for mostly appearing in westerns. He attended Valley College.
Inspired by his father, Victor French followed in his footsteps and soon started landing roles in westerns and anthology shows, and also in films too. He began his acting career on television where he acted mostly as a stuntman in the 60s through 80s. Prior to that, he had an uncredited role as an office clerk in the film The Magnificent Seven in 1960.
In 1961, he appeared in what became his first real western role in an episode of the syndicated series Two Faces West. He also guest-starred in about thirty-nine TV series including Hazel, The Virginian, Bonanza, Hogan’s Heroes, Mister Ed, Wagon Train, Death Valley Days, Tarzan, Branded, and Batman.
He was cast in a recurring role as Agent 44 on Get Smart (1965-1966) and in The Hero (1966). Also in 1966, he appeared alongside his father in the Prime of Life episode of the western drama Gunsmoke before going ahead to appear in 22 episodes until 1975, often playing a crook. Before then, he shared the screen with his father three years earlier in a 1963 war film titled The Quick and The Dead.
Victor French starred opposite Elvis Presley in the 1969 western, Charro! and guest appeared in a few episodes of NBC’s longest running western series, Bonanza alongside Michael Landon. The series launched the duo into a lifelong relationship and they also teamed up on a number of other projects including Little House on the Prairie (1974) and Highway to Heaven (1984).
French’s guest role on The Waltons in 1972 as a blacksmith named Curtis Norton was a stark opposite of his bad guy roles and thus broke his typecasting limitations. It led to his being cast as Mr. Isaiah Edwards in Little House on the Prairie and in three of its television movies. He, however, left the series in 1977 to star in Carter Country (1977) but returned two years later and remained until Little House’ final episode in 1983.
He was in the 1982 romantic drama film, An Officer and a Gentleman as Joe Pokrifiki, the stepfather of Debra Winger‘s character, Paula Pokrifki. On the stage, French featured in many productions including The Time of Your Life at the Huntington Hartford Theater with Henry Fonda, Jane Alexander, and Richard Dreyfuss.
Behind the scene, Victor French directed a number of episodes on Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983), Gunsmoke (1974-1975), Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1981), Dallas (1982), the TV movies Little House: Look Back to Yesterday (1983) and Little House: Bless All the Dear Children (1984), Highway to Heaven (1984-1986), and was a co-director on Rock-a-Doodle in 1991. Moreover, he directed in LA Theaters and won the Critics Circle Award for the 1971 production of 12 Angry Men.
He co-founded Company of Angels Theatre with Leonard Nimoy in LA and served as the president and artistic director. He later became a private acting tutor after he left the company in the mid-70s. French was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame in 1998 at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Family: Wife, Children
The French’s family obviously had acting in their blood. Victor’s father, Ted French was also a western actor and stuntman who helped him break into the business. He died in 1978.
Victor French married his first wife, Judith Schenz on January 9, 1959. The duo had three children: a son, Victor A. Jr. who was born in 1960 and twin daughters, Kelly and Tracy who arrived two years later. Unfortunately, their marriage fell apart sixteen years after their nuptials and ultimately ended in divorce on July 3, 1975. Tracy appeared on the final episode, Merry Christmas from Grandpa of Highway to Heaven on August 4, 1989.
With his first marriage firmly behind him, he married the daughter of actor Lee J. Cobb, Julie Cobb on March 14, 1976, but their marriage did not last as it ended two years later on May 23, 1978.
Cause of Death
Shortly after finishing the last episode of Highway to Heaven, news of Victor French’s demise greeted his fans on 15 June 1989, aged 54. He was a heavy smoker most of his life and was diagnosed with lung cancer in April 1989. French died at Sherman Oaks Community Hospital in Los Angeles, California.