After ‘Little House on the Prairie’ Victor French Had an Unhappy Marriage and Died of Cancer

Victor French found success starring in “The Little House on the Prairie” and later founded a theater company in Los Angeles with Leonard Nimoy. Sadly, after suffering from lung cancer for three months, he passed away.

Born Victor Edwin French on December 4, 1934, in Santa Barbara, California, the actor was exposed to the entertainment industry because of his stuntman father and western actor, Ted French. Before playing a guy with a loving side, French appeared as an evil and tough guy in different western films.

French, both an actor and director, had a successful career in the industry with several credits to date. Here’s a look at his life before and after he launched his career on television and started his own company with Leonard Nimoy.

A side-by-side photo of Victor French from his time in the “Little House on the Prairie” and during his older years acting, | Source: Getty Images

Before becoming an on-screen star, French studied theater at Los Angeles Valley College and Cal State Los Angeles. In 1954, he made his screen debut in the film “Lassie” and had more villain roles because of his muscular build.

He also appeared in “Gunsmoke” with his father, whom he credits for growing up loving the western genre until eventually stepping into the industry. He said of his parents:

“I had parents with terrific values too. […] 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.”

Victor French from the television program “Carter Country.” | Source: Wikimedia Commons

French later became a regular on the family show “Bonanza,” which aired from 1959 to 1973. Soon after, he appeared on “Little House on the Prairie” in 1974 until 1977, although the series lasted through 1983. 

After his mid-series exit, French starred in the unsuccessful sitcom “Carter Country” and later returned to “Little House on the Prairie” for its last two years. French then landed a significant role on “Highway to Heaven” in 1984 as former policeman Mark Gordon and directed a few episodes of the show.

He also appeared in “Get Smart,” “The Hero,” “Charro,” “Flap,” “Death of a Gunfighter,” “Rio Lobo,” “There Was a Crooked Man,” and “Wild Rovers.” Apart from being on-screen, French also works on-stage. He has starred in several plays, including “The Time of Your Life,” which won him an award.

Aside from acting on stage, French directs plays. The multi-talented artist was recognized for his production “12 Angry Man,” winning a Los Angeles Drama Critics Award.

Over a decade after his career began, French, together with Leonard Nimoy, founded LA’s “Company of Angels” in their attempt to establish an “Off-Broadway-West Coast.” The actor stayed in the company until the mid-’70s before deciding to teach privately. 

The actor, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with cancer in March 1989 and didn’t take long before ending up in the hospital.

In 1985, as told by the Los Angeles Times, French thanked Landon for rescuing him from “20 years of playing killers, rapists, and every kind of villain and pervert known to man.”

Like his other roles, French was an intimidating and rough-looking man who struggled with sadness and alcohol. What set him apart from his previous characters was his kind heart. Behind the scenes, he was a man with a good sense of humor. According to his “Little House” co-star Charlotte Stewart:

“He was great! He was just one of the most charming and funny men and had such a good heart. He was really suffering from his breakup with Julie Cobb.”

French also had a passion for boxing, so much so that in 1985, he became a key financial backer of Ten Goose Boxing Club of Van Nuys. 

Although French was not married during his passing, he had tied the knot twice before. On January 9, 1959, he married Judith Schenz, with whom he had three children: a son, Victor Jr., and twin daughters, Tracy and Kelly.

However, their marriage came to an end on July 3, 1975. On March 14, 1976, French married his second wife, Julie Cobb, who appeared with the actor in the production “After the Fall.”

Cobb, like her ex-husband, was an actress born into a family of entertainers. Her father was award-winning actor Lee J. Cobb and her mother was stage and film star, Helen Beverley. Some of Cobb’s notable roles include “Knots Landing,” “Charles in Charge,” “Magnum P.I.,” and “Judging Amy.”

Victor French as Isaiah Edwards. | Source: Getty Images

Sadly, her marriage with French ended in divorce on May 23, 1978, leaving both without a child. He never remarried after that but was fulfilled and happy with his children.

The actor, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with cancer in March 1989 and didn’t take long before ending up in the hospital. French passed away on June 16, 1989. His funeral service was held at the Gene Autry Museum in Griffith Park with his closest family and friends in attendance. Stewart shared what happened:

“His attorney said, ‘And now a message from Victor.’ We all looked up in the sky, and there’s this plane going over us with the message, ‘Eat [expletive] — Love, Victor.’ He planned all of that.”

Although he had already passed, the actor’s legacy in the industry did not go unnoticed. In 1998, French was inducted into the Great Western Performers Hall of Fame.

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