Victor French: A Son and Daughter Remember
Written by Karen Brewer
Tracy and Victor French, Jr., a daughter and the son of the late actor Victor French (who portrayed the character of Mr. Edwards in Little House on the Prairie), reminisce about their father during a reunion, held in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the television series. (Photography by Karen Brewer)
Victor French’s son, Victor, and one of his twin daughters, Tracy, traveled to the real town of Walnut Grove, Minnesota to reminisce with fans of Little House on the Prairie about their late father, who portrayed the much loved character of Isaiah Edwards in the television series. Their visit coincided with a reunion of 11 Little House cast members who gathered in Walnut Grove to celebrate the show’s 40th anniversary.
“It’s an absolute honor to be here,” said Tracy. “I am personally blown away.” She felt that her father would have come to the reunion, as well. “Absolutely. He’d be all over this place. He was a fun-loving man.”
Both Tracy and Victor said that, of all of the characters played by their father, in television and in movies, their favorite is his role of Mr. Edwards on Little House.
“If I ever feel like I miss him,” said Victor, “I just watch Highway to Heaven or Little House on the Prairie. He really is Isaiah. Mr. Edwards was easy for him, because it was him. It really was.”
Their father, Tracy said, was so blessed to have been a part of Little House on the Prairie, a series that, she said, has had such a positive influence on so many people. In earlier roles, he had played the role of the villain, in television westerns such as Bonanza and Gunsmoke. “He wasn’t a big fan of playing the bad guy,” said Tracy. “Sometimes, you have to do what you have to do to feed your family. So, he had to take some roles, when he was playing heavies in Gunsmoke, to make sure his family was provided for. So, to be able to play this lovable character (Mr. Edwards) was very, very special.”
“Every day, he thanked Michael for that,” added Victor. “He got away from playing all of those villains. I thank him, too. I’m grateful to have those memories.”
“I have to say something,” said Tracy, who credits the books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and then the television series being made, giving the actors jobs, and also the fans who liked the show when it first aired and who are keeping it alive today. “I’m just going to share from my heart,” she said, about interacting with fans at the reunion and being able to share about her father, who was so much a part of Little House. “I haven’t talked about this in a long time. You have no idea how touching this is, no idea how touching this is.”
Tracy’s favorite episode of Little House is the pilot movie, which aired on March 30, 1974, about six months prior to the September 11, 1974 television series premiere. Victor agreed. “If I had to pick one, it would be the pilot, too,” he said.
“The most terrifying, memorable one was when he was attacked by a bear,” added Tracy, referring to the episode “His Father’s Son,” in which Mr. Edwards pleads for his adopted son, John Sanderson Jr., to shoot the attacking bear. “I didn’t expect it. I was 13 years old, and I was on the telephone and watching this episode, where he got attacked by a bear, and he was yelling, ‘Shoot him! Shoot him!’ And I dropped the phone. That stayed with me. That was one of the more memorable ones.”
“My favorite one I like to watch is the oddball one he directed,” said Victor, referring to the episode “The Older Brothers.” “It was slapstick comedy. That one was fun. How much fun I had working with him.”
Bearing a striking resemblance to his late father, Victor worked as his father’s double in Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven.
Tracy remembers driving one day to the Little House set and being taken by surprise, seeing double. “Victor was wearing the same Mr. Edwards outfit as my Dad, as his body double, and they were sitting next to each other. That was pretty incredible.”
“I grew up on the set of Gunsmoke,” said Victor. “He kept pulling me out of school to come to the set. But going onto the Little House set as often as I did before I could grow a beard, I was accepted into this wonderful family. When I first started going on the show, as a visitor, Melissa Gilbert and I became very good friends, but they all were friendly. A lot of the crew had been together since Bonanza through Little House and Highway to Heaven. As soon as I was able to grow a beard, I was able to be his stand-in. He said, ‘I’m going to have you as my stand-in. You’re going to ‘hate’ it afterward, because it is going to be the best job you’re ever going to have.’ And it was, because it was working with the best people I have ever known, the best people I have ever met in my life. Everybody I ever met while working on that show was always in the best spirit. I loved working on Little House out in Simi Valley. There were hills around us. It was beautiful to go out there. I loved being there. And everybody I ever met who came on the show was hearing, ‘This is the one where everybody wants to come work on.’”
In addition to the Walnut Grove set at Big Sky Ranch in Simi Valley, episodes of Little House were also filmed on location in several places, including Old Tucson in Arizona and Sonora, California. While filming on location, Victor would accompany his father to share his father’s hobby of rock hunting. “We filmed in northern California, up in Sonora, the Gold Rush country. We would go off and smash rocks with hammers.” “I remember going rock hunting with him,” added Tracy. Another hobby of their father’s was collecting theater lobby cards. “He had the second or third largest lobby card collection in California,” said Victor. Their father had a vast collection of western memorabilia. “Almost everything he had was donated to the Roy Rogers Museum in Victorville,” said Victor. “His clothes are on display at the Roy Rogers Museum.”
After Little House, Victor continued to work as his father’s stand-in on the television series Highway to Heaven, in which Michael Landon portrayed an angel named Jonathan Smith, and Victor French played his friend, Mark Gordon. The same crew, which began in Bonanza and continued in Little House also continued working together in Highway to Heaven. “By Highway to Heaven, they were doing seven-day shows. It was one of the best, closest-knit groups,” said Victor.
“My most recent memory is of Highway to Heaven, the Halloween episodes. We did one scene, when Michael turned to my Dad. I was right up next to the camera, and you couldn’t tell the difference.”
When asked what it was like working with Michael Landon, in several years of Little House and all of Highway to Heaven, Victor answered, “Michael was amazing. He was just amazing to be around.” Victor recalled Landon’s work ethic and his devotion to family life. “Michael was a very, very, very busy man, and, when he was not working, he was with his family. We did see him occasionally, if my Dad threw a party.”
Tracy added that, when her father found out that he had cancer, he shared with his family and instructed them not to tell many people. In addition to her father’s friend Bob, Tracy said, “The one person I remember that was regular at the house and at the hospital was Michael.
“My father – I loved him so much, and I miss him so much. It was a blessing for me to be there when he passed. He passed in June of 1989. His ashes were scattered on the ocean.”
Victor French had grown up as the son of an actor and stuntman, Ted French, and he followed in his father’s footsteps, working as a stuntman on Gunsmoke, before taking acting roles. “He was really passionate about the craft of acting,” said Tracy. “He did a lot of stage. He loved his work. He loved the craft.”
“My father spent his life studying acting,” added Victor. “He knew human nature. He knew how to interact, which made it very hard to pull a joke on him.”
French was also adept at directing. He directed about one-third of all of the Little House episodes, Victor said.
The late actor Victor French, who portrayed the lovable character of Mr. Edwards on Little House on the Prairie.
Once he began acting in Little House on the Prairie, he came to be recognized in public. “When he started doing the role of Mr. Edwards, a lot of things changed,” said Tracy. “He started getting recognized by people, which was really strange.” She remembers being pleasantly surprised, when visiting relatives in Washington state and at a bowling alley with her family, that some young Little House fans were excited to have seen ‘Mr. Edwards.’ I remember Kelly and I being in a bathroom at a bowling alley, and these girls came in, and they were giggling that they had just seen ‘Mr. Edwards.’ Kelly and I looked at each other like, ‘you’re talking about our Dad.’”
Both Tracy and Victor remember their father being very playful with them when they were children. “When we were little kids growing up, he would always get on the floor with Kelly and I and Victor, and we’d wrestle and jump all over him,” said Tracy.
“He’d get on his hands and knees,” said Victor, “and go, ‘I’m gonna get you. I’m gonna get you.’”
“He’d play these games,” said Tracy. “We would stand in line, and we would do either the tickle test or we’d have the smiling line and see who could go the longest without laughing. I was always good at that. He sat in a chair and tried to get us to laugh.”
When one laughed, he or she would have to go back to the end of the line, Victor explained.
“Kelly just laughed. I could go the longest without laughing or smiling,” said Tracy.
“We enjoyed scary movies, as kids,” she added. “But there was a part of my father, there was a part of this man, who liked to turn all of the lights off in the house. Halfway through (the movie), Dad is missing, somewhere in our home. And you knew –
“You’d have to go find him,” said Victor.
“Yeah, you’d have to go find him. Where was he?”
“Everywhere,” said Victor. “Hiding under the bed. I’d jump, trying to catch him on the far side of the bed, and, well, he was behind the curtain, on the other side of the bed.”
“Or I would come down the hall,” said Tracy, “and have the door cracked to the room, and you’re in the dark, trying to go in your room, and you see this eyeball, and he’s coming at you. And he would do it in a movie theater.”
“He would catch you at the scary part of the movie,” said Victor. “He’d be behind you and go, ‘Is everything okay?’”
“Or he’s missing somewhere in the movie theater,” said Tracy. “It was a lot of fun, growing up.”
Tracy and Victor have fond memories of a wonderful childhood with their father and their mother, Judith, who had acted in many films before the age of 10 and who had even, they said, danced with Gene Kelly. Some of the special memories they hold dear include Christmas, with both sides of the family together, and Thanksgiving with their family at their grandmother’s.
As for her father’s parenting skills when she was growing up, Tracy remembers that he never raised his voice. “When Kelly and I were probably about nine years old, we had this horrible habit of throwing our clothes on the floor and leaving them there. I remember him going, ‘Come here for a second. I want to show you guys something.’ He said, ‘I want you to do something. I want you to pick your sweaters up and put them on.’ He was not humiliating us. He was trying to illustrate how much easier it was to walk to the closet with the sweater on and take it off and hang it up. And he had us do it. He said, ‘Just try it. Use a hanger.’ We didn’t feel like we were being made fun of. We didn’t feel like we were being belittled. He was explaining.”
Victor remembers when he was a small child and being told by his mother to wait for his father to get home to be disciplined. His father was playing villains on television. “Imagine a little child told, ‘Wait till your father gets home.’ And then you sit down and watch television and watch him ‘kill’ somebody on television.”
Their father, they said, was a funny man, funnier even than the character of Mr. Edwards he portrayed. “Having gone to the same high school and having some of the same teachers, I learned that he was the class clown,” said Victor.
“His face was basically made of rubber,” said Tracy. “He had very little cartilage in his face. So he could put his finger down on his nose and move his nose all over his face. And he would also take his ear and fold it up and stuff it inside, and it would pop out.”
“We’d get together at dinner time,” said Victor. “A few minutes before dinner time, we’d sit at the table and make faces in front of each other. He wanted me to be his stand-in because I could do this.”
Today, Victor lives in Virginia and continues his artwork, which he began years ago, even while working as a stand-in. “I draw and paint,” he said. “Some of my artwork is sold in the museum (in Walnut Grove). I’ve been drawing all of my life; even on the set, I would draw. Before my Dad became an actor, he wanted to become an artist. He wanted to do cartoons. I caught that ‘bug.’ He always supported that, because it was something he wanted to do.”
Tracy has acted and has taught acting, but said, “When I became a mother, everything changed. I put that down and became a full-time Mom. I learned how to value life and what’s really important.” She moved, about a decade ago, to Virginia. I’m married today to an incredible man, a disabled vet who’s retired from the Air Force. We’re involved in an incredible organization called Project Healing Waters. It teaches flyfishing to disabled vets and takes them out on trips.”
Little House on the Prairie will always hold a special place in the hearts of Victor French’s children. Victor recalled the very last day on the set, after all of the Walnut Grove buildings at Big Sky Ranch, except for the church and the Ingalls home and barn, had been demolished. Because of safety precautions, the actors were not present when the buildings were destroyed, but they returned to the set afterward, to film their characters’ reactions to the buildings being destroyed, as the actors themselves were seeing the destroyed set for the first time. “I wasn’t there the day it was blown up, but I went there the day after, when they did the reaction shots,” he said. “And I walked around, trying to find one piece of a recognizable house, just something that I could have taken home. I always loved it.”