Born in Santa Barbara, California, to Ted French, an actor and stuntman who appeared in westerns in the 1940s, French later appeared with his father in one episode of Gunsmoke entitled "Prime Of Life" in 1966, as well as a war film in 1963 called The Quick And The Dead. Ted French died in 1978.
Following in his father's footsteps, French also began his television career as a stuntman in mostly westerns and anthology shows. During this period, he guest starred in some thirty-nine television series. Though he was uncredited as an office clerk in the film, The Magnificent Seven, French's first real western role was the 1961 episode "The Noose" of the syndicated series, Two Faces West; his fellow guest star on the segment was L.Q. Jones, another actor destined to become well known in western roles. French was cast as Larrimore in the episode "Fargo" on the ABC/Warner Brothers western series, The Dakotas.
French appeared twenty-three times on Gunsmoke, often playing a crook, whether dangerous or bumbling. On October 25, 1971, he portrayed a cold-hearted gunman named "Trafton", who while robbing the communion vessels in a Roman Catholic church murders a priest. As the clergyman lies dying, he forgives his killer, a development which dogs Trafton, who holds human life in low regard, for the entire episode until he is shot to death by Marshal Matt Dillon. French guest starred in another episode, titled Matt's Love Story, in which Dillon falls in love with a character played by Michael Learned. This episode would then lead to the story line in the 1990 made-for-television movie, Gunsmoke: The Last Apache in which Matt rejoins with Learned's character "Mike" and he learns that he has a grown daughter.
The appearance also led to French's re-teaming with Learned in a guest-actor role on The Waltons a year later. In "The Fulfillment", French plays a blacksmith named Curtis Norton whose wife could not have children and subsequently adopts an eight-year-old orphan boy who has come to spend the week on Walton's Mountain.
This led to his being cast in his most well-known role as Mr. Edwards in the series based on the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder entitled Little House on the Prairie, beginning in 1974.
In other work, French also starred opposite Elvis Presley in the 1969 western, Charro! and played the recurring character "Agent 44" in the NBC series Get Smart in 1965-1966, where he portrayed an undercover spy who showed up in the worst, most unlikely of places (like a mailbox or a porthole in a boat) and appeared in a few episodes of Bonanza, with Michael Landon. The two young actors found considerable common ground and became each other's best friend as a result. Shortly before being teamed up once again, French made a guest appearance on Kung Fu as a corrupt, bigoted sheriff in 1973. French also guest starred in episode 24 ("Trial by Fury") of season 2 of Mission: Impossible, in which he played the informer in a prison.
In 1976, French appeared in an episode of the western series Sara.
In 1982, French appeared in the film An Officer and a Gentleman as the stepfather of protagonist Paula Pokrifki, played by Debra Winger.
French is most widely known for costarring with Michael Landon on two television series. He appeared on Little House on the Prairie (1974–1977), (1981–1984) as Isaiah Edwards (French also directed some episodes of Little House). He appeared on Highway to Heaven (1984–1989) as Mark Gordon.
From 1977–79, he left Little House to star as a small-town Georgia police chief in Carter Country. When the series ended, the actor was surprised that Landon was agreeable to his returning to the character of Mr. Edwards. French appeared in Episode 8 of Season 6, in Episode 8 of Season 8, then returned full-time, starting with Episode 19 of Season 8.
According to interviews with Cindy Landon, and Kent and Susan McCray on the A&E DVD release of Highway to Heaven Season 3, French and Michael Landon were "crazy about each other", indicating that they always made each other laugh and enjoyed each other's company. Cindy Landon mentions that French was a quiet and reclusive kind of guy as opposed to Landon's outgoing personality.
French died at the age of 54 on June 15, 1989 at Sherman Oaks Community Hospital in Los Angeles, California, after a three-month battle with lung cancer. According to one anecdote, he left a final, good-humored message for friends and family at his wake, having arranged for an airplane to fly overhead with it.
In 1998, French was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.The Magnificent Seven - Front Office Clerk (uncredited) (1960)
The Quick and the Dead - Milo Riley (1963)
Charro! - Vince Hackett (1969)
Death of a Gunfighter - Phil Miller (1969)
There Was a Crooked Man... - Whiskey (1970)
Flap - Rafferty (1970)
Rio Lobo - Ketcham (1970)
Wild Rovers - Sheriff (1971)
The Other - Angelini (1972)
Chato's Land - Martin Hall (1972)
The Nickel Ride - Paddie (1974)
The House on Skull Mountain - Dr. Andrew Cunningham (1974)
An Officer and a Gentleman - Joe Pokrifiki (1982)
Hazel - episode - A Matter of Principle - Bailiff (1961)
The Virginian - episode - The Accomplice - Roy (1962)
Bonanza - episode - Gallagher's Sons - Conn (1962)
The Virginian - episode - The Secret of Brynmar Hall - Michael (1964)
Mister Ed - episode - Anybody got a Zebra?- Murphy (1965)
Wagon Train - episode - The Silver Lady - Beal (1965)
Death Valley Days - episode Hugh Glass Meets the Bear - Louis Baptiste (1966)
Get Smart - 7 episodes - Insurance Man/Agent 44 (1965-1966)
Tarzan - Episode 20, A Pride of Assassins - Cotonasos (1966)
Branded - episode - Kellie - Sheriff (1966)
Batman - episode - A Death Worse Than Fate - Hood No. I (1966)
Gunsmoke - 18 episodes - Various (1966-1975)
The Hero - 10 episodes - Fred Gilman (1966)
Daniel Boone - episode - The Ballad of Sidewinder and Cherokee - Blue Belly Sangster (1967)
The F.B.I. - episode - False Witness - Loyd Smit (1967)
Death Valley Days - episode - The Girl Who Walked The West - Toussaint Charbonneau, husband of Sacajawea (1967)
Mission: Impossible - episode - Trial by Fury - Leduc (1968)
Gentle Ben - episode - Ben the Champ - Turner (1968)
Bonanza - episode - The Burning Sky - Aaron Gore (1968)
The F.B.I. - episode - Moment of Truth - Vincent Roger Tobias (1969)
Bonanza - episode - Meena & The Horse Traders - Jesse Potter (1969-1970)
Daniel Boone - episodes - Love and Equity, The Landlords, & How to Become a Goddess - Ess (1969-1970)
Mannix - episode - Figures in a Landscape - Carl Hastings (1970)
O'Hara, U.S. Treasury - episode - Operation: Deadhead - Paris Kohler (1971)
Bonanza - episode - An Earthquake Called Callahan - Tom Callahan (1971)
Mission: Impossible - episode - The Tram - Vic Hatcher (1971)
Kung Fu - episode - The Ancient Warrior - Sheriff Aldon Pool (1973)
The Streets of San Francisco - episode - Deathwatch - Reggie 'Reg' Norris (1973)
The F.B.I. - episode - Tower of Terror - Riles (1973)
Mannix - episode - The Dark Hours - Matt Brandon (1974)
The Waltons - episode - The Fulfillment - Curtis Norton (1974)
Little House on the Prairie - 59 episodes - Isaiah Edwards (1974-1983)
Battle of the Network Stars III - TV Special - Himself - ABC Team (1977)
Carter Country - 44 episodes - Chief Roy Mobey (1977-1979)
Dinah! - episode - 3/6/1978 - Himself (1978)
Disney's Wonderful World - episode - The Ghosts of Buxley Hall: Parts 1 & 2 - Sergeant Major Cheater B. Sweet (1980)
Disney's Wonderful World - episode - The Cherokee Trail - Scant Luther (1981)
Little House: Look Back to Yesterday - TV Movie - Isaiah Edwards (1983)
Little House: Bless All the Dear Children - TV Movie - Isaiah Edwards (1984)
Little House: The Last Farewell - TV Movie - Isaiah Edwards (1984)
Fame- Mr. Donlon (1984)
Highway to Heaven - 111 episodes -
.The Rookies, episode entitled '' Deadly Cage'' from 1973. played an inmate
Little House on the Prairie - 18 episodes (1974-1983)
Gunsmoke - 5 episodes (1974-1975)
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century - episode - The Satyr (1981)
Dallas - episode - Denial (1982)
Little House: Look Back to Yesterday - TV movie (1983)
Little House: Bless All the Dear Children - TV movie (1984)
Highway to Heaven - 12 episodes (1984-1986)
Rock-a-Doodle - co-director (live action segments) (1991)