Senator Fred Thompson reinvents himself as a radio talk-show host following his unsuccessful presidential campaign.
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"I put that in the same category as a hundred other things that are irritating and somewhat silly," Thompson says. "But if you took everything that was irritating and silly out of politics, you'd hardly recognize it as politics."
Among the irritating and silly things: commentators who crowned him, even before he announced his presidential candidacy, as the heir apparent to Ronald Reagan. Thompson dismisses the comparison; while they're both politicians who worked as actors, and while Thompson believes he hews to the same political philosophy Reagan did, Thompson would never compare himself as a political communicator to a president he considers was a master.
"His success had to do with his real belief, rather than acting," Thompson says. "Nobody accused him of being a good actor until he was in politics." Thompson sees few similarities between politics and acting. "The big difference is that, in politics, you're shooting with real bullets," he says with a smile. "Aside from the benefit of knowing a little bit about lighting and staging, I don't think one carries over to the other."
Thompson had never harbored dreams of acting when he was offered his first movie role: playing himself in Marie, the 1985 movie about a real Tennessee corruption case in which Thompson had been the prosecuting attorney, which starred Sissy Spacek and Jeff Daniels.
"I had never even been in a play—it never occurred to me to be an actor and never would have," says Thompson, who was a private-practice lawyer at the time. "I just looked at it as fun, an adventure. How often do you get to do something that's that interesting, with nothing to lose? It was challenging and yet risk-free, being able to walk into this world with other professionals and compete with them on an equal footing. I thought that would be the end of it." One of his fellow actors, however, felt otherwise. "Morgan Freeman told me during that film, 'You have a chance to do more of this if you want to,'" Thompson recalls. "I actually had a bigger part than he did in the film; that's my claim to fame. That was the last time that happened."
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.
"I can envision myself as a Navy admiral or an FBI agent," he says. "I just put myself in that other person's shoes. In 'Law & Order,' I was playing a prosecutor, which is precisely what I'd been. So you put yourself in the situation—and then you bear down or lighten up, as the situation calls for. "I recognize that the great actors add a dimension I'll never know because they've studied and spent years working on technique; they understand the theory behind what they're doing. But I know that, if I work within a certain range, I can do what I do and do it well."
Thompson admits to a healthy aspiration to further roles. "I'll see a movie and think, I'd love to have done that," he says. "I've always wanted to do a good Western. If I'd started acting as a young man, I would want to have emulated John Wayne."
The ultimate accolade of the acting world, of course, is the Academy Award. When asked how he feels about fellow Tennessean Al Gore (a Democrat, to boot) receiving an Oscar (for the documentary An Inconvenient Truth), Thompson allows a chuckle to rumble up and says, "I guess there's hope for all of us."
At one point in the conversation, daughter Hayden comes in to say good-bye; she and her mother are on their way to the gym. Polite, pretty and shy, Hayden provokes an unalloyed, beaming smile from her proud father.
The family is Thompson's second, a late-life surprise that Thompson feels he can appreciate in a way he couldn't when he became a married parent the first time, at 17.
"It's different in so many respects," he says of fatherhood redux. "Having young children again was not something I really planned on. You understand better what's important and what's not. I savor it now—I savor the moments I have with my young kids. It makes you a little sad that you didn't appreciate what you had earlier in life."
Thompson was an aimless 17-year-old in his hometown of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, when he married his high school sweetheart, Sarah Lindsey. Lawrenceburg was a town of nearly 15,000, about 80 miles south of Nashville. "It wasn't exactly Mayberry—but it wasn't far from it," Thompson says.
Thompson and his wife had three children; his two sons are in business in Tennessee, while his daughter died in 2002 of an accidental prescription drug overdose. He and Sarah divorced in 1985. "We were married for 25 years, so in many respects you could consider it a successful marriage, instead of a failure. I don't recommend marrying at that age for my kids or grandkids. Doing the same thing, but at a later age, is better for everyone concerned."
Yet he believes that teenage marriage may have been the key to his future. "Up to that point, I had no achievements as a student," he says. "Getting married kept me from going to college and doing what I did in high school, which was goofing off, wasting time, pursuing athletics. Marriage required me to buckle down."
He did well enough as an undergraduate at the former Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) to win a scholarship to Vanderbilt University's law school. After graduation, he landed a job as an assistant U.S. attorney, then was recruited to work on the 1972 reelection campaign of Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker, who became his mentor. After Baker won, he became the ranking Republican on the Senate Watergate committee and brought Thompson to Washington as minority counsel for the committee.
The Watergate hearings in the summer of 1973 put Thompson in the national spotlight. But he and his fellow lawyers—not to mention the lawmakers—were so busy with the hearings themselves that they had no sense of how the spectacle of the Nixon administration unraveling on national TV was riveting the rest of the country.
"As the hearings got going, we were enmeshed in them day and night," he recalls. "Occasionally we'd come up for air—and realize that everyone was watching. That was the thing I was known for for a while. But then I went back to Nashville and started my own law practice and went on about my business."
Thirty-five years later, Thompson finds that people often have only a vague memory of his involvement in Watergate. As Thompson notes, there are entire generations that have no idea what Watergate was.
Indeed, when you've done as many things as Fred Thompson has in a lifetime, it's inevitable that other people have a hard time keeping track of them all. "People will say to me, 'I didn't know you were a lawyer' or 'I didn't know you were involved in Watergate,'" he says. "As we started talking about doing the radio show, people weren't even mentioning that I had been a senator. I was the actor who had been a presidential candidate. As you get older, things tend to drop off the back end of your résumé."
As a candidate for senator and again for president, Thompson emphasized his roots: that small-town, down-home sensibility that, no matter how long he's been away from Lawrenceburg, has never left him.
"The things my mama taught me all turned out to be true," Thompson says. "If things appear to be too good to be true, they probably are. There's no such thing as a free lunch. And if you behave yourself, good things will happen to you. I could go back there right now and it would feel just as much like home as it ever has."
Marshall Fine is a journalist and film critic whose movie reviews can be found at www.marshallfine.com.
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