Victor French, a San Fernando Valley boy with a love of boxing and acting who parlayed those interests into a career as stunt man, actor and director, died Thursday morning after a three-month battle with lung cancer.
Sherman Oaks Community Hospital spokeswoman Johna Rogovin said the co-star of "Highway to Heaven" and several other top TV series had been admitted June 7. He was 54.
The son of a stunt man who instilled a love of western lore in him as a boy, the burly and bearded actor's first job was with his father performing stunts on "Gunsmoke." He studied theater at Los Angeles Valley College and Cal State Los Angeles before beginning to appear regularly as an actor on "Gunsmoke," then as Agent 44 on the spy spoof "Get Smart" and then on "Bonanza," where he first met Michael Landon. Landon was to bring him into "Little House on the Prairie" and then "Highway to Heaven."
On "Highway to Heaven," which completed its final season this year, French was burly ex-cop Mark Gordon who accompanied Landon, playing a probationary angel, on a series of adventures around the country.
He had played an equally vital role as Landon's good friend and neighbor Isaiah Edwards on "Little House."
In a 1985 interview with TV Guide, French credited Landon with rescuing him from "20 years of playing killers, rapists and every kind of villain and pervert known to man."
He joked that "it had gotten to the point where crowds parted when they saw me coming."
(Landon declined Thursday to comment on his friend's death, as he had when "Bonanza" patriarch Lorne Greene died, saying through his publicist that he does not feel such comments are proper.)
French left "Little House" to become Chief Roy Mobey, the star of "Carter Country," a racial comedy where he was the white police chief coping with a black deputy trained in big-city criminology.
French also was seen in the brief 1966-67 TV comedy series "The Hero."
He also directed dozens of episodes of "Little House," "Highway to Heaven," other TV shows and theater productions, winning a Los Angeles Drama Critics Award for "12 Angry Men." He wrote the play "My Daughter Comes on Thursdays."
French made several movies of the week for television and was featured in such motion pictures as "Death of a Gunfighter," "Rio Lobo," "There Was a Crooked Man," "Wild Rovers," "The Nickel Ride" and "Officer and a Gentleman."
French owned a vast collection of western memorabilia, including Buck Jones' hat, Tom Mix's and Roy Rogers' boots and thousands of theater lobby cards.
His other avocation was boxing, which he traced to a childhood interest. In 1985 he became a key financial backer of Ten Goose Boxing Club of Van Nuys, a stable whose fighters include middleweight champion Michael Nunn.
He is survived by two daughters and a son. At his request there will be no services.
"His instructions were to throw a party for his friends," said his manager, Bob Philpott.