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Obituaries

U.S. senator and actor Fred Thompson dies at 73

Fred Thompson, an actor and former U.S. senator from Tennessee with a booming, instantly recognizable voice and heavy-lidded eyes, died Sunday in Nashville. He was 73.

In a statement, his family said he had a recurrence of lymphoma.

While Thompson had a down-home persona, he was also a sophisticated attorney and Beltway insider who immersed himself in politics. In Washington, he served as minority counsel for the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973 and 1974. It was under Thompson’s questioning that former White House aide Alexander Butterfield revealed the fateful existence of a taping system in the Oval Office.

A Republican, Thompson was elected to the Senate twice before opting to leave.

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In his first campaign, his opponent, Rep. Jim Cooper, blasted away at what he suggested was a huge gap between Thompson the good ol’ boy and Thompson the politician.

Cooper called him “a Gucci-wearing, Lincoln-driving, Perrier-drinking, Grey Poupon-spreading millionaire Washington special-interest lobbyist.”

In fact, Thompson was a highly successful lobbyist, representing clients including the Teamsters Union pension fund, Westinghouse, GE and Toyota.

Still, his constituents in Tennessee liked his style and he handily won a 1994 election against Harlan Matthews, who had been appointed to succeed Al Gore after Gore became vice president. In 1996, Thompson was reelected to the Senate with 61% of the vote.

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In 2007, he announced a run for the presidency but, despite his fame from movies and TV, it didn’t catch on. He ended his attempt in January 2008.

In his 2010 book, “Teaching the Pig to Dance: A Memoir of Growing Up and Second Chances,” Thompson wrote that the aborted candidacy was his first real failure.

“It occurred to me that, to paraphrase one of Churchill’s comments, perhaps I had more to be humble about thanI had realized,” he wrote. “It also occurred to me that this was a pretty doggone expensive way to achieve a little humility.”

Standing out in a crowd with his 6-foot-6, 240-pound frame, Thompson was a character actor who appeared in more than 20 films, including “In the Line of Fire” (1993), ''The Hunt for Red October,” (1990) and “Cape Fear” (1991). He often played authority figures, including a White House chief of staff, a Navy admiral, an FBI agent and a university president.

From 2002 to 2007, he also played Manhattan Dist. Atty. Arthur Branch on NBC’s “Law & Order.”

He called himself “a bit actor.”

“It’s like hundreds of thousands of average people who once a month go out to their community theater and get up onstage and play a little part,” he told the New York Times in 1997. “I got to do it, you know, with Paul Newman.”

Born Aug. 19, 1942, in Sheffield, Ala., Thompson grew up the son of a car salesman in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., a small town founded by Col. Davy Crockett.

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At 17, he married his high school sweetheart, had two children and attended college on a basketball scholarship. One semester, he had to quit school and work part-time jobs in a church pew factory, a bicycle plant and a drive-in movie.

Thompson graduated from Memphis State and, in 1967, from Vanderbilt University law school.

Back in Lawrenceburg, he practiced law, formed his county’s first Young Republicans group, worked on political campaigns and came to the attention of prominent politicians, including U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Howard Baker.

“Very few people can light up the room the way Fred Thompson did,” Alexander said in a statement Sunday. “He used his magic as a lawyer, actor, Watergate counsel and United States senator to become one of our country’s most principled and effective public servants.”

It was Baker, the top Republican on the Senate Watergate committee, who chose the up-and-coming Thompson as the GOP counsel on the committee.

“I trusted him,” Baker told USA Today in 1997. “I didn’t have time to get acquainted with anybody else and evaluate a bunch of legal stars.”

After gaining national recognition on the Watergate committee, Thompson returned to Tennessee. He took on the case of Marie Ragghianti, an aide to Gov. Ray Blanton who said she had been unfairly fired. The trial sparked a corruption investigation that landed the governor and several other officials in jail.

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Thompson’s first movie role was in 1985 as Sissy Spacek’s lawyer in “Marie: A True Story.” Thompson played himself, though he thought his name was too undistinguished for a show business career.

“Nobody is named Fred,” he complained to People magazine, “except uncles and dogs.”

He appeared in “Die Hard 2” (1990) with Bruce Willis; “Fat Man and Little Boy” (1989) with Newman; “In the Line of Fire” (1993) with Clint Eastwood; and “Aces: Iron Eagle III” (1992) with Lou Gossett Jr. He also played American Express Chief Executive James Robinson on HBO’s “Barbarians at the Gate: The Rise and Fall of RJR Nabisco” (1993).

In the Senate, he was known as something of a maverick.

He angered fellow conservatives by allying himself with the McCain-Feingold effort at campaign finance reform. In 1998, he was one of just 10 Republicans to vote against convicting President Clinton on one of two counts arising from his affair with a White House intern.

When he oversaw 1997 hearings on the role of money in politics, other Republicans were hopeful that charges about access peddling would rock the Clinton administration. But Thompson also allowed testimony that was unflattering to Republicans, and some party members had bitter memories of it 10 years later, when Thompson announced his presidential run.

“The way Thompson conducted the hearings may raise questions about whether he has the zest for cut-and-thrust partisanship that many conservatives want in their leaders,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 2007. “Although conservatives wanted to keep the focus on Clinton and the Democrats, Thompson … broadened the scope of the investigation, giving Democrats opportunities to question GOP practices.”

Thompson’s survivors include Jeri Kehn Thompson, his wife since 2002; their two young children; and two grown children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce. He had five grandchildren.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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