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The Gentleman from Tennessee

Senator Fred Thompson reinvents himself as a radio talk-show host following his unsuccessful presidential campaign.
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Fred Thompson, March/April 2009

(continued from page 4)

Still, Thompson assumed it was just a happy accident—until Roger Donaldson, who directed Marie, called him the following year to play the director of the CIA in the Kevin Costner thriller, No Way Out. A couple more roles followed—including a multi-episode stint playing an evil con man on the TV series "Wiseguy"—before Thompson decided that he should probably get an agent.

He never gave up practicing law or moved away from Nashville. But he wound up acting in 18 feature films and in numerous TV series, made-for-television movies and miniseries. He's specialized in playing authority figures, including admirals and generals, FBI agents and a White House chief of staff in films as different as Die Hard 2, Days of Thunder, The Hunt for Red October and In the Line of Fire. In his last feature film role, Albert Brooks's 2005 comedy Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, he brought his acting career full circle and played himself.

"He's like a jewel," Brooks says. "He's got authenticity and a sense of humor. He was 1,000 percent prepared—and he does Fred Thompson perfectly. When he talked, I believed that this was the way he would talk when the camera wasn't there. I didn't sense acting—and that was important to me. If you have him do what he does, nobody does it better."

On-screen, as in life, he cuts an imposing figure, reinforced by a distinctive bass voice that seems to start at his toes. To Thompson, it's all about relaxing on camera or, as he puts it, having "the knack of being natural in unnatural circumstances."

"You spend all this time getting suited out in clothes that other people have selected," Thompson explains. "Then you spend time sitting in a makeup chair, having someone fuss over you. Then they take you to the set and turn bright lights on you. There are all these cameras surrounding you and 15 people standing behind them and a boom microphone overhead for the sound. Then they shut everything down and ring bells and say, 'Action!' And you're supposed to act naturally, like you're there by yourself or with one other person. It's an interesting challenge, especially when you approach it at middle age, as I did. It's been a totally positive thing for me."

Still, it was strictly an avocation—and one that he set aside once he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1994 to fill Vice President Al Gore's unexpired Senate term. But when he announced in 2002 that he would not seek another term, he quickly got a phone call from Dick Wolf, creator of "Law & Order," offering him the chance to join the show's regular cast.

Wolf cast him as District Attorney Arthur Branch, the top legal official in the show's fictional New York crime-and-punishment universe. Thompson appeared in more than 100 episodes of the series, including installments of four other "L&O" franchises.

"Once he was cast, we basically customized the suit to fit the character," Wolf says. "We discussed whether the Southern accent should be mentioned and we decided that Arthur had migrated to New York about 35 years before, after a successful stint as a prosecutor in Tennessee, then joined a top litigation firm before joining the D.A.'s office. The character basically evolved from there." Thompson brought an inimitable gravitas to the character, one that came naturally to the actor/lawyer/politician.

"Fred is the living definition of command presence," Wolf says. "When Fred, as Arthur Branch, walked into a room, people felt like they should stand up and salute. If you look back at his previous roles, you can see I'm not the only producer who has felt that way."

For Thompson, acting is not particularly mysterious, primarily because he tends to be cast in certain kinds of roles.

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