Victor French was cruising his own highway to heaven. He had arranged an East Coast promotional tour so that he had an afternoon free in Manhattan, time to prowl the nostalgia shops and other haunts that cater to his hobby. Make that his passion.
He returned to show off his new treasures, a handful of lobby cards, small movie promotional pictures featuring some of his favorite movie heroes from the B-western days of the '40s, plus some Bogart, some Judy Garland ("In the Good Old Summertime" and "Easter Parade"), Barbara Stanwyck, one from a Charlie Chan feature.
He'll pack it all off to California and file it away with thousands of others or display them in his den. It's a small house, he said, but with room enough for him, his massive collection and his dog.
Western movie star Buck Jones died in 1942, when Victor French was just 8 years old. But French has never forgetten him nor the lessons Jones and his western-star contemporaries taught during the weekend matinees.
"Every Saturday I was at (a theater) in Van Nuys," said French, recalling those formative years. "I had parents with terrific values too. But that (the old westerns) was what I was raised on . . .
"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."
Actually, of course, French is closer to a saint than that. Closer to an angel, anyway. French is featured each week with Michael Landon in "Highway to Heaven," a Landon production that, along with "The Cosby Show," has helped put a gentle touch -- in humor and moral tone -- back in prime time if not in style.
French plays helper to Landon's angel- on-earth role. "It's a hit show because it's in good taste," said French, who directs half the episodes. "I think Michael has good taste. I think I have good taste. Every show is an effort to show there's a way to solve problems other than violence . . . We're saturated with other shows telling us violence, hurtling cars and T-and-A are the ways to solve problems."
French said the show is receiving a lot of mail. "Most of my fans can't spell," he quipped. "The mail says that it's great to have something to watch that shows a different way of dealing with problems."
French has been part of several TV shows that demonstrated a variety of ways of dealing with problems. One of his earliest and most prolonged exposures was in his guest appearances on "Gunsmoke," which was followed by a continuing role in "Bonanza."
Breaking into television via the western was a natural for French. What would you expect from someone who grew up on Buck Jones and other B-western stars of the '40s and '50s and even had them as guests in his house?
French got his early exposure to the western through his father, who worked as a stunt man. He got his start as an actor while working with his father on "Gunsmoke," a series that lasted 20 years. He appeared in about 25 episodes, and in the series' final seasons French directed some of the shows.
"Gunsmoke" was one of the shows that became a subject of the anti-TV- violence backlash of the late '60s and early '70s. "It went through a violent and nonviolent phase," said French. "There was a time when you couldn't even point a gun at someone. It made writers write better. You couldn't just blow a bad guy away. You had to find other ways of dealing with him," he said, returning to his contemporary theme. "There were a whole lot of 'Gunsmokes' in which no one got killed or shot at all.
"There were such great people connnected with that show, from the top on down . . . I don't know that we'll ever have a show run 20 years again, from a purely financial aspect. As a show goes on, people keep asking for more and more money and more and more costs go up."
French then turned up as a regular in "Bonanza," a truly family-oriented western TV series. It was there that one of its stars, Michael Landon, took special note of him. "When he went off to do 'Little House on the Prairie,' he wanted me for the show," said French, recalling the proposal that led to a professional marriage. "We spend more time together than a married couple."
When he isn't working on "Highway to Heaven," look for French down at the gym. He has a fight-manager's license and is co-owner of a stable of boxers. If he isn't there, check the nearest western film festival, or look for him shopping around for western movie stills and lobby cards. "And sometimes," he said, "I go out and get drunk." Well, he said he was no saint.
French has twin daughters, 23, and a 24-year-old son who works with him as a stand-in on "Highway," reminiscent of French's work with his own father. And, like his father before him, French hangs out with old western stars.
Yes, Lash LaRue is still alive, assures French, and Monte Hale and Sunset Carson. Bob Steele lives about a block away. And Roy Rogers is just fine, except that his back's giving him some trouble. "I go up to see him and we take our shotguns out and blast things, shoot up the mesquite."