I believe that some people are placed on this earth to bless our lives. Bless our lives through their caring, gracious, humble presence. Bless our lives through their quiet, honest, friendly ways. These people are smart, talented, versatile in their abilities and make you feel important, recognized and loved. Just to see them on the street and have a quick discussion, to see their smiling face—it simply brightens your day. This is what I found in knowing actor/director, Arthur French, and I was so saddened to hear of his passing on July 24, 2021, following a stroke at the age of 89.
I personally knew Mr. French and had the pleasure of interviewing him on occasion. He would talk about his passion, which was the arts, and his family, whom he was very proud of. I will always remember him as a very humble man, a great talent and incredibly versatile whether he was in plays, films or television. So many times I would be watching “Law & Order, SVU” and shout out to my family, “Look, there’s Arthur!”
He was born Arthur Wellesley French Jr. Nov. 6, 1931 in Harlem Hospital. He was the son of Ursilla Ollivierre French and Arthur French Sr. who came to the United States from St. Vincent and the Grenadines. He grew up in the Bronx, attending Bronx High School of Science and went to Brooklyn College. He married his late wife Antoinette Fran Williams on July 1, 1961 and they had two children, Arthur French III and Antonia Willow French. Before becoming an actor, French had various occupations. He was a talented basketball player, worked for the New York City Department of Social Services as a head supervisor, and was a road manager for groups such as the Coasters and the Cadillacs.
He decided later in life that he wanted to be an actor and took theater classes with Peggy Feury and movement with James Noble. He studied under Maxwell Glanville at the American Community Theater in Harlem. He got his equity card with his first show, “Raisin Hell in the Sun.” He worked with Leroi Jones’ (Amiri Baraka) Black Arts Group and then became one of the original 13 members of the Negro Ensemble Company.
French had a truly impressive career on stage, in film and television. With the Negro Ensemble Company he performed in “Day of Absence,” “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men,” “Nevis Mountain Dew,” “A Soldier’s Play” and “Song of the Lusitanian Bogey.” I feel so blessed to have seen him in his final stage performance, which was at the Negro Ensemble Company in the Karimah play “Imminently Yours” directed by Count Stovall. In it French starred with theater veteran Dorothi Fox and Edythe Jason. In my glowing review I refer to their elderly characters as “the keepers of the history, the keepers of the secrets—the storytellers, which…are always the primary roles,” and French truly embodied that description. To see him in any production you saw a master at work!
Broadway audiences had the opportunity to witness his stunning performances in his Broadway debut in “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death,” and his performances in “The River Niger,” “All Gods Chillun Got Wings,” “Poison Tree,” “The Iceman Cometh,” “Death of A Salesman,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Mulebone,” “Dividing the Estate” and “The Trip to Bountiful.”
His off-Broadway work included August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come And Gone,” “Checkmates,” and directing “Pecong” at the National Black Theatre.
He had movie roles in “Car Wash,” “Malcolm X,” “Round Midnight,” “The Keeper,” “No Pay, Nudity,” “Movie 43,” “Loose Cannons,” “Crooklyn,” and “Red Hook Summer.” On television he was seen on “Law & Order,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Another World” and “As the World Turns.”
Another hat French wore was that of teacher, teaching acting and scene study at the Herbert Berghof Studio, The New Federal Theater and The American Theater of Harlem. He received an Obie Award for Sustained Excellence for “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” and The Paul Robeson Award from Actor’s Equity. He received a Lucille Lortel Award for “Two Trains Running.”
A funeral service was held for Mr. French on Tuesday, Aug. 3 virtually in Glendale, California. He was a father and grandfather, father-in-law, actor, mentor, teacher and friend. He is survived by his son Arthur W. French III, daughter Antonia F. March, son-in-law Garnett March Sr., granddaughter Sheridan March, and grandson, Garnett March II. He is also survived by his long-time girlfriend, Katherine Roberson, who was also with him when he transitioned.
Sharing their thoughts on his passing and what his life meant, several individuals shared who Mr. French was to them. Arthur French III giving his thoughts about his father said, “Dad was fun. He always encouraged us in our careers—mine as a playwright, my sister Antonia, as a television writer. He always gave advice on how to navigate the business of show, instilled faith in us, and to always be humble, to be respectful to everyone, and to care about what you do and to commit fully to it.
“Dad left his mark as an actor, mentor, teaching students acting, which he loved. He brought dignity and a reality to every role he played. He was supportive and helpful to everyone that needed any advice and encouragement. And did it without any ego, and showed respect to everyone. His kindness and humility—that’s his legacy, and what a wonderful thing to leave for everyone. Well done Dad.”
His daughter Antonia F. March said this about her Dad: “He was a gentleman. He was the epitome of a father. He was a wonderful provider, teacher, daddy and as I became an adult he was just my friend. I spoke to him everyday, multiple times a day. I miss hearing his voice and talking to him about anything. He was a wonderful man, generous with his time. The most important thing is that he became my friend.”
Katherine Roberson shared, “I was WITH him, holding his hand when he took that last but not final bow. I’m more than joyed for our time together as a couple and artist. Always my love.”
Karen Brown, Negro Ensemble Company, artistic director, who worked with French when he was in “Imminently Yours” at NEC, fondly recalled her friend and colleague. “I believe Arthur French brought a sense of professionalism, integrity and responsibility to the business. Arthur was the consummate working actor, serious about the work and dedicated to the art. Additionally, he brought a sense of community and an understanding of the functioning of a concept of an ensemble, support, moving through the challenge. Since the time I started with NEC, Arthur was one of the ones who could always be counted on to support in whatever way he could.
“The last production, ‘Imminently Yours’ by Karimah, was memorable. On this production, I had an opportunity to speak with Arthur every night of the run. He was always there early and prepared to do what he needed to do to the best of his ability. Yet the thing that impressed me the most was his sense of comfort and understanding the work of the art that had been his path since the 1960s and his humility and ability made everyone around him feel calm and at ease. I was keenly aware that I was in the presence of ‘the most working actor in the business.’ I will always remember his smile and laughter we shared. He was a lovely and kind person, always encouraging, especially in the darkest of times.
“I think his legacy is about the work, and more importantly the love of the work. It was apparent he loved what he did. Arthur exuded confidence in the work. He came prepared with obvious mental and physical structure learned and repeated over the years. I believe his knowledge of the business, his dedication to the art, and his complete and positive attitude made him not just a joy to be around but also a treasure representing the best The Negro Ensemble Company has to offer. He will be sorely missed.”
Count Stovall, who directed French in “Imminently Yours” at the Negro Ensemble Company and did a documentary film with him that went into their careers and the careers of other theater legends, had this to share. “Arthur French was a brilliant actor, a loving human being, an artist, a friend, and a director and a master teacher. No one was like Arthur on stage or on camera. As a man you could trust and depend on Arthur. As a great father and a husband he was adored.
“I’ve known Arthur since the early 1970s. What made Arthur so good? Simplicity: he never did more than was absolutely essential, he lived fully in the moment he was engaged in, he was self-efficacy, he lived the truth within the expression, ‘no acting ever.’
“I directed him and he directed me and I performed with him many times and we produced a film together. A documentary called “King Arthur & The Count.” Its subject was [60 years of Blacks on Broadway] which grew out of one of our many long conversations about the necessity of making Black folks visible and memorable in the American Theatre. Arthur French was a powerful man who will live in my heart forever.”
Documentary filmmaker of “King Arthur & The Count,” Juney Smith wished to recall, “Working with Arthur was firstly, an honor and secondly, an absolute honor. What I recognized immediately was his professionalism and the warm human spirit he was. He made the set extremely lovely. Arthur was one of the executive producers and a visual narrator as himself talking about the history of theater, his journey as an actor, his life background and his successful career as an actor.” His legacy in Smith’s eyes: “One of America’s finest actors. A Broadway veteran who represented the Black actor in the highest form, including film and television. A building stalwart of the Negro Ensemble Company, New Federal Theatre and The Black Spectrum Theatre. A great teacher and the best of the human spirit.” Considering his most endearing quality, Smith shared, “As far as being as great and wonderful a person as a human being can be, Arthur is that!”