Michael Landon appeared in some of the most popular TV shows of the ’60s and ’70s, including "Bonanza" and "Little House on the Prairie." These series often landed in the top 20 highest-rated shows of the year. "Bonanza" even became the most-watched TV series from 1964 to 1966 (via Classic TV Hits).
Landon’s fame increased over the years, and his role as Charles Ingalls made him one of the most beloved TV dads. He ranked number 14 in a Gold Derby ranking of the 40 best TV fathers. And the actor was as beloved off-screen as he was on-screen.
31 years after his death, Melissa Gilbert, who played Landon’s on-screen daughter in "Little House on the Prairie," paid tribute to him. In an essay for PanCAN, Gilbert said, "Today I am missing my Pa. Today I am missing Michael Landon. So much so, I can feel it in my chest, in my heart. I am aching for him." (via People).
Landon bonded with many on the set of "Little House on the Prairie," but one of his greatest bonds was with Victor French. Their friendship started long before the hit TV show and lasted well after it.
Victor French and Michael Landon met on the set of Bonanza
Michael Landon played one of the lead characters in "Bonanza." According to The New York Times, he played Joe Cartwright for 14 years, from 1959 to 1973. Prior to "Bonanza," he appeared in a few episodes of "Playhouse 90," "Cheyenne," and in the film "I Was a Teenage Werewolf" (per IMDb).
According to IMDb, Victor French appeared in "Bonanza" at least five different times from 1962 to 1971. He played various characters. French’s early career mimicked that of his father, Ted French. They both began in Hollywood as stuntmen and even worked together on a few projects, including an episode of "Gunsmoke" (via Little House on the Prairie).
French appeared in many well-known TV shows, such as "Get Smart" and "Hogan’s Heroes," throughout his career, but "Bonanza" had the biggest impact on his future success. In the 1960s and 1970s, French and Landon seemed to be on very different career paths, but on the set of "Bonanza," they formed a bond that changed both of their lives.
Victor French credits Michael Landon with changing his career path
In a 1985 TV Guide interview, Victor French stated that he had been typecast into the role of a villain. "20 years of playing killers, rapists, and every kind of villain and pervert known to man," the actor reflected (via Legacy). He even joked that it had gotten to the point that people would avoid him on the streets.
In a interview with The Washington Post, French shared that after Michael Landon joined "Little House on the Prairie," he sought him out to be on the show. French and Landon both appeared in the pilot episode. According to Dave Sundstrom, French left "Little House on the Prairie" in 1977 to star in a leading role in a show called "Carter Country."
The show aired on ABC, and "Little House on the Prairie" aired on NBC. His new contract didn’t allow him to appear on both shows because they were on competing networks. "Carter Country" only lasted for a few seasons. Landon reached out to French after the show ended and asked him if he wanted to return to "Little House on the Prairie." He would remain on the TV show until its series finale.
They also both appeared in and directed the "Little House on the Prairie" TV movies.
The friends spent ‘more time together than a married couple’
Victor French and Michael Landon ended up starring in two shows together after "Bonanza" ended. The first was "Little House on the Prairie," and the second was "Highway to Heaven." Landon had a lot of creative control with both series as a producer, director, writer, and leading man.
When "Highway to Heaven" began the pre-production stage, he made sure that French was cast as co-lead. In a Los Angeles Times interview, it was revealed that the NBC network originally wanted a younger actor to play the character of ex-cop Mark Gordon. Landon wanted French.
Landon wanted an actor who took the character seriously. He also wanted to continue to work with "the man I love." The admiration was mutual because French praised Landon for having "good taste" and creating shows that tried to offer alternative ways to solve conflicts that didn’t involve violence (via The Washington Post).
In the same Washington Post interview, French discussed his long professional partnership with Landon. He joked that Landon and him "spend more time together than a married couple."
They often joked around between takes
Clearly, Victor French and Michael Landon had a lot of respect for each other, both professionally and personally. However, like many friends, they still made sure to tease and prank each other from time to time. According to the Little House on the Prairie site, Dean Butler shared that Landon only allowed a few people to play practical jokes on him, and French was one of those people.
COZI TV posted some bloopers and outtakes from "Highway to Heaven," and many of them show Landon and French making each other laugh. There are a few scenes of both men trying to keep a straight face but then laughing because of something the other one did while acting.
There is also a clip of French trying to get into character, but being unable to stop laughing. Those listening closely can even hear Landon laughing from behind the camera. Landon and French both directed episodes of "Highway to Heaven" and "Little House on the Prairie," so because they had more creative control than many other actors, this probably led to a little more freedom to relax and have fun on set.
Michael Landon struggled not to cry at Victor French’s funeral
Michael Landon and Victor French both had tragic deaths at the age of 54. French died in 1989 from lung cancer (per The Washington Post). Charlotte Stewart, who played Eva Beadle as part of the "Little House on the Prairie" cast, shared some of her memories of French in her autobiography "Little House in Hollywood Hills: A Bad Girl’s Guide to Becoming Miss Beadle, Mary X, and Me."
According to Stewart, French’s lawyer gave instructions that French didn’t want anyone to cry during his funeral. He said anyone who did would be thrown out. Landon struggled to meet this request. "Mike Landon, who was a very emotional guy and had been Victor’s dear friend, was standing next to me and grabbed my hand at this and hung on for dear life. I’ve never seen a man fight tears so hard in my life," shared Stewart (via Showbiz Cheatsheet).
In 1991, two years later, Landon met a similar fate. He died of cancer of the liver and pancreas, according to The New York Times. He was also only 54. Landon’s battle with cancer was made public a few months before his death.
Though Landon and French died too soon, their legacy remains, and their friendship is one to be celebrated and admired.