Victor French and “Carter Country”

I was so happy to be reminded of this show a few days back. I enjoyed Carter Country (1977-79) as a kid; it resonated and it was funny. With the hindsight of decades it seems both brave and conceptually brilliant, a sort of cross between All in the Family and In the Heat of the Night, with some Barney Miller and The Andy Griffith Show thrown in. It’s like a missing link between the liberal sensibilities of mainstream ’70s television entertainment…and the cracker rehabilitation project that provided a counter-strain to the decade, as exemplified by Southern Fried Rock, the movies of Burt Reynolds, the trucker and CB radio fad, and the Presidency of Jimmy Carter himself.

Carter Country was a starring vehicle for Victor French (1934-1989), whose birthday it is today. At the time the show debuted, French was best known for playing Mr. Edwards on Little House on the Prairie. He was far and away my favorite character on the show. The Olsens were funny but evil. I loved Melissa Gilbert, but the other children seemed too sweet (except the Olsen kids). And Ma and Pa were just preposterous, absolutely inauthentic in a way that was apparent even to a nine year old kid. They spoke too well, they seemed entirely too worldly for a Minnesota farm couple. As Mr. Edwards, French was not just funny but real. He was scruffy and rough and sweaty. He seemed like he had soil under his nails and in his knuckles. Laura Ingalls’ actual father was probably far more like French than he was like Michael Landon, with his movie star looks and flowing mane of hair to rival Farrah Fawcett’s. French actually looked like the illustration of Pap in my edition of Huckleberry Finn. He looked like a man who would take a drop of whiskey, sleep in his clothes, track manure and mud into the cabin.

I was thrilled to learn about his background. His father, Ted French (1899-1978) was a bit player and stunt man in westerns from the 1940s through the 1960s. He was often cast as cowpokes and “henchmen” of bad guys. In several films he is cast as a square dance caller, a plainly marketable skill he apparently possessed. Ted’s last work was on Gunsmoke in the late ’60s. In one episode, Victor and Ted appeared together. Victor had begun working regularly in television around 1960. Like his father, he was frequently in westerns, but occasionally he strayed outside the genre, as when he had a recurring role as Agent 44 on Get Smart (1965-66). He was a regular on a short lived sitcom called The Hero in 1966. He got some decent movie work around the end of the decade; he’s in Charro! (1969) with Elvis Presley; There was a Crooked Man (1970) with Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda; Rio Lobo (1970) with John Wayne; The Wild Rovers (1971) a Blake Edwards’ western with Ryan O’Neil and Karl Malden; and Chato’s Land (1972) with Charles Bronson and Jack Palance. All westerns! He also appeared in a few episodes of Bonanza, which is how became fast friends with Michael Landon, and wound up with a great role on Little House.

But in 1977, he got himself a starring vehicle, and who wouldn’t take that? In Carter Country, he played a police chief in Georgia, in a burg not unlike Plains, hometown of Jimmy Carter. While James Earl Carter has always been a known as a gentleman and a Christian, his brother Billy was a proud and vociferous redneck, and the country had already been subject to his real life comic shenanigans for several months when Carter Country aired. The show seemed like a sort of formalization of that vogue. Kene Holliday played a college educated African American police sergeant — a sort of Mr. Tibbs character, but funnier. His antagonist in the department was a racist cracker named Jasper played by Harvey Vernon. Another of his stripe was a buffoonish Mayor played by Richard Paul, not worlds away from the later Boss Hogg. Barbara Cason played a sassy lady cop given to wisecracks, not unlike Flo from Alice. And Vernee Watson (who was also on Welcome Back, Kotter and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air) played the Mayor’s secretary (who was smarter than he was) and Holliday’s love interest. Guich Koock played a dim-witted deputy, a sort of cross between Barney Fife and Goober.

If it sounds like a potential powder keg of a show, it was. Producer Bud Yorkin had been Norman Lear’s ex-partner on All in the Family, Maude and Good Times. His partners on Carter Country were Saul Turteltaub and Bernie Orenstein, with whom he’d launched Sanford and Son. Carter Country wasn’t to have the same kind of longevity as those other shows, however. It went off the air after two seasons — one year before Carter himself. A decade later, In the Heat of the Night came to the small screen, treating the milieu with a seriousness that was probably less confusing to viewers.

To everyone’s delight, when Carter Country folded, Landon gave French his old job back on Little House, where he remained through the series end in 1984. Then the pair went on to their next collaboration, Highway to Heaven, on which French was a regular until he passed away in 1989.