A racist? No, but he played one

Times Staff Writer

Ronald Reagan became president even though he worked with chimps in B movies.

Arnold Schwarzenegger played a murderous robot, and that didn’t keep him from becoming governor.

So can “Law & Order” actor and former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) become the first presidential candidate with this credit? Thompson played a white supremacist, spewing anti-Semitic comments and fondling an autographed copy of “Mein Kampf” on a television drama 19 years ago.

His colleagues say that he was just an actor putting everything he had into playing the role of a charismatic racist, named Knox Pooley, in three episodes of CBS’ hit show “Wiseguy” in 1988. “Do you call Tom Cruise a killer because he played one in a movie?” asked show creator and writer Stephen J. Cannell.


But in the age of YouTube, this performance could raise an intriguing political question: How does a performer eyeing a presidential run deal with a video history that can be downloaded, taken out of context, chopped into embarrassing pieces and then distributed endlessly though cyberspace? Some conservative political blogs are already considering the problem.

“Not only do politicians have to worry about getting comfortable with a crowd and saying something that might be caught on tape,” said USC professor Leo Braudy, a pop culture expert, who has written extensively about film. “Now actors who have political aspirations will have to go through every single line of every part they played to make sure there’s nothing they need to explain or apologize for.”

The role is not something Thompson, who is in Orange County for a speech today, has talked a lot about in recent years. (His spokesman did not respond to several requests for comment this week.) In an appearance before the American Bakers Assn. in Phoenix last year, Thompson mentioned that he had a part on “Wiseguy,” but he did not go into details. He summed up his acting career this way: “I played a CIA director, FBI director, an FBI agent, a senator, an admiral, a White House chief of staff, corporate execs and myself twice,” Thompson said in the speech. “Some might say I was playing myself on each of these occasions. In each of these roles it seemed as if I had either known the guy I was playing or someone like him.

“So instead of studying admirals or generals, etc., I envisioned that I, Fred Thompson, had become an admiral or general and played myself.... The range was narrow, but I was establishing myself as the character actor for authority figures.”

The idea that the “Wiseguy” role could be used against Thompson upsets Cannell.

“He was an actor hired to play a part,” Cannell said. “These are not his personal views. He doesn’t believe any of that, nor do I. If this is all they can find to say about him, then they’ve hit a new low.”

It takes only a few minutes to find the old “Wiseguy” series on Amazon Unbox. For $1.99, you can watch Thompson’s first episode, “School of Hard Knox,” where the actor asks a crowd at a rally whom they blame for their economic woes.


“You’ve asked yourself that same question, haven’t you?” he says, standing in front of a banner decorated with a cross resembling the emblem of the racist Christian Identity movement. “When you’ve lost that job on the construction site or the loading dock, a job you’ve had for 20 years to someone who can’t speak the language but who is willing to work for $2.50 an hour?”

He gets the crowd chanting: “Who’s to blame? Who’s to blame?”

“Who are these enemies?” he asks the crowd. “Some folks say it’s the Jews. In fact, if I had a quarter for every time I heard that, I would be 10 bucks shy of being Jewish myself.”

The scene continues. Thompson’s character says: “The fact remains that it would be easy to point our finger at the bankers and the financiers, Jewish or not, for the fact that our great nation can’t compete in the market place with the Asiatics. And it would be easy to blame the liberal leftist, Jewish or not, for sacrificing our working people on the altar of economic Bolshevism.”

He tells the crowd that they have only themselves to blame. “We have been complacent, because we have been gullible, and we have been naive, we have allowed them to exercise their genetic need to dominate a Christian world. So don’t blame the Jews for doing it. Blame it on yourselves for letting them.”

He adds: “Open your mind and open up your hearts and open up your wallets and accept your birthright to a land of pure blood, pure spirit, pure belief and our divinely ordered superiority as a people.”

Later in the episode, a follower gives Thompson’s character a suitcase full of money and a copy of “Mein Kampf” signed by Hitler. The actor appears deeply touched.


“Only you would have the sensitivity to know what this means to me,” he tells his supporter.

Some conservative websites are already discussing how a potential Thompson campaign may have to deal with these scenes. People who work out their politics on the Internet understand how potentially troublesome things like this can be. Like pebbles in a pond, you can’t know where the ripples are going to stop -- or what the gullible or the mean-spirited may make of them.

One website called Patterico’s Pontifications asked the question recently: “How will they trash Fred Thompson?” Several respondents immediately mentioned the “Wiseguy” performance.

Marty Kaplan, who directs USC’s Norman Lear Center for the Study of Entertainment, thinks that “candidates’ video trails have always been a potential liability, or asset. The difference YouTube makes is that the networks, and the paid media campaigns, are no longer the gatekeepers of what clips get distributed.”

That’s exactly why there’s so much potential for partisan mischief in Thompson’s “Wiseguy” role. In some ways, Thompson is too good an actor and looks too convincing in the part -- a problem Schwarzenegger never had.

If Thompson’s old TV roles do play a part in his presidential campaign, then the long relationship between Hollywood and politics will have entered a new era -- an actor’s dream and a candidate’s nightmare -- a world where nothing you ever said is forgotten.