Cast as a leader, but what’s his motivation?

Times Staff Writer

Fred D. Thompson never took an acting class, performed in summer stock or dreamed of Hollywood fame. But one day a big-name director, preparing a film about political corruption that Thompson had exposed, asked him to play himself in the movie.

A star was born. Thompson, then a lawyer, went on to make 23 movies, countless television programs and millions of dollars.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 4, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 04, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Fred Thompson: An article in Thursday’s Section A profiling actor and former U.S. Sen. Fred D. Thompson, who is being discussed as a potential presidential candidate, should have said filming of this season’s “Law & Order” had just ended, not next season’s.

Now, the accidental actor is being urged to take another role he has not been gunning for, as a growing crowd of conservatives clamors for him to run for the Republican nomination for president.


Other candidates have been refining their game plans for years, but the former senator from Tennessee has glided almost without effort to a strong position in the early polls, even though most voters know him only as a district attorney on television’s “Law & Order.”

If Thompson answers the conservatives’ call to enter the race -- and he may offer a clue during an Orange County speech Friday -- a prominent question will come with him: Will voters see a real-life American leader, or someone who only plays one on the screen?

As a candidate, Thompson would bring a compelling personal saga worthy of People magazine: From humble beginnings, he married at 17, did a star turn in the Senate’s Watergate hearings, dated splashy younger women after his divorce, won a Senate seat and then left it amid the pain of a daughter’s death. Now, at 64, he finds himself the remarried father of an infant and a toddler.

But some associates doubt that Thompson has the driving ambition needed to run for president. Many of the key decisions and opportunities of Thompson’s life have been thrust upon him, not passionately made or sought. He became chairman of a Senate committee by a fluke, not by a laborious climb up the seniority ladder. His acting career began spontaneously, and since then he has not chosen roles that expand his range or challenge his skills.

“Fred is generally playing a version of himself,” said producer Mace Neufeld, who has worked with Thompson on five films. “I wouldn’t cast him as a Frenchman or a villain.”

‘Doors have opened’

Thompson has acknowledged the large role of happenstance in his successes.

“I have never beaten down a lot of doors in my life, but occasionally doors have opened to me, and I had sense enough to see that they were opening and I would walk through them,” Thompson acknowledged recently in a Fox News interview. “And they’ve always turned out well for me.”


Now, the door may be opening again, largely because many conservatives are unhappy with the current choices for president. Thompson, as a senator, posted a solid conservative voting record on abortion, gun control and other litmus-test policies.

And yet, he did not do the hard work of leading the charge on those issues. He backed a campaign finance reform bill that is loathed by conservatives. And unlike Ronald Reagan, the actor-turned-politician Republicans still idolize, Thompson does not have a well-articulated ideology or signature set of ideas.

Indeed, his most obvious qualification for the presidency may be that Thompson -- standing 6 foot 6 with a booming voice and stage presence -- looks and sounds the part. Indeed, he will play the part of a U.S. president in a forthcoming HBO movie.

“He comes straight out of central casting,” said Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.). “First impressions matter in politics.”

Thompson was not available for an interview, but in a 2006 speech to the American Bakers Assn., he offered a detailed assessment of the many chapters of his life story.

“I did not plan on making any of these moves,” he said. “Each decision led to things that were totally unforeseeable.”


Thompson, the son of a used-car salesman, grew up in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., a town of about 10,000 that describes itself as a “modern Mayberry.” He married his high school girlfriend before turning 18, became a father shortly afterward and had two more children in quick succession. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Memphis State University and a law degree from Vanderbilt University. He then returned to Lawrenceburg to practice law.

“For a decade, my greatest desire and highest ambition was to be a big legal fish in the small pond of Lawrenceburg,” he said in his speech to the bakers.

After a stint as assistant U.S. attorney in Nashville, he made his most fateful political connection in 1972, meeting Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) and joining his reelection campaign.

Thompson earned enough trust that when Baker became the senior Republican on the Senate committee investigating the Watergate scandal, he asked Thompson to be his top aide.

Thompson helped question witnesses in the televised hearings that riveted the nation -- his first taste of media attention. Most famously, he asked a question of White House aide Alexander Butterfield that prompted the disclosure of President Nixon’s Oval Office audiotapes -- a bombshell that set Nixon further on the path toward his political demise.

But in a bit of political stagecraft, Thompson quietly helped the White House manage the unfolding scandal. Rather than blindside the administration with disclosure of the taping system, Thompson told the White House counsel of the coming disclosure the night before Butterfield’s testimony, according to Thompson’s memoir of the Watergate experience.


Despite his image as a down-home outsider, Thompson spent many years after Watergate in lobbying and law firms. His career became a model of life imitating art and art imitating life, as Thompson moved between acting and politics.

His acting career began in the mid-1980s, when a filmmaker asked Thompson to play himself in “Marie,” a movie about a whistle-blower whom Thompson had represented in a 1977 corruption case. “Here I was, never so much as having been in a high school play or had an acting lesson -- which I am often told is obvious -- going head to head with Sissy Spacek and Morgan Freeman,” Thompson recalled.

From that he was launched into a series of films, taking roles akin to playing himself: a blunt, charismatic authority figure with a soothing Southern drawl.

While he would eventually campaign as a political outsider, Thompson’s on-screen characters tended to live deep in the halls of power. He played a White House chief of staff in “In the Line of Fire,” CIA director in “No Way Out,” even a president in “Last Best Chance.”

“The range was narrow, but I was establishing myself as the character actor for authority figures,” he said.

After playing a senator in the 1993 film “Born Yesterday,” Thompson decided to run for an actual Senate seat in a 1994 special election.


At first, his campaign against Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper flagged, but Thompson bounced back by adopting a new persona. He drove a red pickup truck, shedding the skin of a high-priced lawyer who usually drove a Lincoln Continental.

Cooper complained it was a gimmick, calling Thompson “a Gucci-wearing, Lincoln-driving, Perrier-drinking, Grey Poupon-spreading millionaire Washington special interest lobbyist.” Still, Thompson took 60% of the vote and two years later won a full six-year term.

He entered the Senate with high expectations and lucked into a committee chairmanship after three years -- a plum that most senators labor for decades to acquire. Thompson chaired the Government Affairs Committee during a high-profile investigation of fundraising improprieties by the Clinton administration, but some Republicans were disappointed that the probe did not turn up any smoking gun conclusion.

Thompson did not make his mark with any big legislative initiatives. “It never occurred to us he would bring much more than his one vote,” said a senior GOP Senate strategist.

He cast the only vote against a bill setting a tougher federal standard for drunk driving, and the lone vote against a bill banning guns in schools. Mark Corallo, who is helping Thompson deal with the media, says those votes reflected Thompson’s view that many issues are better handled by the states.

That belief is also behind the fact that Thompson, while saying he opposes abortion, did not support a constitutional amendment banning abortion, which many conservatives favor.


One big departure from conservatives was Thompson’s support for campaign finance legislation they bitterly opposed. Otherwise, his voting record was in sync with party orthodoxy on such issues as tax cuts, gun control and national security.

Associates say Thompson found the Senate intensely frustrating, with its endless meetings and sluggish procedures.

“One got the impression that he wasn’t excited about being a United States senator,” said G. William Hoagland, a former Senate aide. What is more, he missed acting.

Thompson considered quitting rather than seeking another term in 2002. But after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he announced he would run again.

Daughter’s death

He reversed field shortly after his adult daughter died of an unintentional drug overdose, according to news accounts at the time. At her funeral, Thompson confided to a friend, Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.): “I’ve lost my heart for [public] service.”

Even before he left the Senate, he was offered a spot on “Law & Order,” where he plays Arthur Branch, a New York district attorney. Thompson also started anew in his personal life.


Divorced in 1985, he entered a long period of highly publicized bachelorhood, dating the likes of country music singer Lorrie Morgan. But at age 59, Thompson married 35-year-old Jeri Kehn, a Republican political aide. They have two children, ages 5 months and 3 years.

Thompson has been a frequent guest host for Paul Harvey’s radio shows. He revisited the Senate in 2005 as tutor and escort for chief justice nominee John G. Roberts Jr. before his confirmation hearing.

Filming of next season’s “Law & Order” ended last week, leaving Thompson more time now to reflect, Corallo said.

In the meantime, Thompson will get more airtime when an HBO movie, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” debuts May 27. He plays President Grant.

While some associates are unsure he will join the presidential campaign, Thompson has been doing serious preliminary work. He met with more than 50 House Republicans last week. He made an unusual announcement about his health -- revealing that he has lymphoma -- which supporters believe was a preemptive disclosure signaling his plans to run. His Orange Country speech Friday will be before an influential conservative group.



Times staff writer Tina Daunt contributed to this report.


GOP debate

Ten Republican presidential candidates will meet today at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley for their first debate.

The proceedings will air live from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on MSNBC and will stream live on and Chris Matthews will be the debate’s moderator.