On screen, Thompson projects power, wisdom
Home-grown actor usually plays tough leaders
“Arthur Branch-NY District Attorney”
Though Fred Thompson hasn’t announced if he’ll run for president, the office is a position he’s occupied — at least three times.
The former U.S. senator from Tennessee, who is now in his fifth season on NBC’s Law & Order,will appear as President Ulysses S. Grant in HBO’s film Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, which makes its debut May 27. The part, which required only one day of Thompson’s time in Canada, probably will receive a good deal of attention if the Republican launches a presidential run.
But this role of power and intellect is just one of many Thompson has landed over the two decades in which he has appeared in 23 movies and numerous television shows, from Roseanne to Sex and the City. The Southerner with a booming voice and imposing (6-foot-5) presence has become Hollywood’s go-to guy for supporting parts requiring the ability to project authority, maturity and wisdom. He’s been selected at least twice before for the role of president: in 2005’s HBO film Last Best Chance and in 2001’s television production Rachel and Andrew Jackson: A Love Story, in which he provided the voice of Andrew Jackson.
In Law & Order, which attracts 9 million viewers weekly, Thompson stars as District Attorney Arthur Branch. He has been cast in movies as a CIA director, White House chief of staff, senator, head of NASCAR, college president, FBI director and agent, chief air traffic controller, corporate executive and rear admiral. In a departure from those roles, Thompson in 1988 played a white supremacist in the network television series Wiseguy, footage of which probably will make its way onto YouTube if he announces a presidential bid.
Roger Donaldson, who directed Thompson in three movies, said Thompson brings a sense of instant power to a role. “The reason he has been successful as an actor is that with the characters he plays, he brings his own sort of intellectual weight to the part,” Donaldson said. “He knows how these (government) people are, and I guess he is one of them as well.
“When we were making the movie Marie, we used to joke about his future in politics. I remember telling him, ‘You should run for the presidency, Fred.’ He would sort of laugh it off. Obviously it did cross his mind.”
Actor Peter Riegert, who appeared with Thompson in the 1993 HBO movie Barbarians at the Gate, said Thompson’s life experiences prepared him well for acting. “You don’t need to study acting to be a good actor. Also, he was a student at the best acting school you can find, which is politics. Politics is all acting, as far as I am concerned. He had a ringside seat at one of the greatest dramas in American history, which is Watergate.”
His resume impresses
Thompson is one of the industry’s top character actors, one who chose to skip the ups and downs of a film career for the steady money of a top TV series, said Steven Gaydos, executive editor of Variety, an entertainment trade publication. “By working steady either on the big screen or little screen, he’s certainly making several million dollars a year, or quite a bit more than the gig on Pennsylvania Avenue pays.”
Fred Dalton Thompson — he had to add his middle name because another actor already claimed the name Fred Thompson with the Actors’ Equity union — has built a list of acting credits that would be impressive for someone who had devoted his entire adult life to acting, and even more so for a lawyer who approached acting as a second profession later in life, Gaydos said. This is evidenced by “his consistency, the quality of films and his work, the caliber of the filmmakers he’s worked with — i.e., Wolfgang Petersen, Michael Apted, Roger Donaldson and Martin Scorsese. These are guys with some pretty impressive resumes, Oscars and blockbusters.”
Thompson also is one of the few TV actors to play the same character simultaneously on different series. In 2005, he also began appearing as Branch on Law & Order: Trial by Jury, and he can be seen occasionally on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
“For 20 years, in film and TV, he’s worked consistently with first-rate directors, often in the middle of a cast of first-rate actors, and he’s always held his own,” Gaydos said. “Several years ago he stepped into one of the most respected and successful drama franchises in U.S. TV history. I didn’t hear anyone say he wasn’t up to the gig.”
He can’t shake the South
Thompson has appeared in films such as Cape Fear, The Hunt for Red October, In the Line of Fire, No Way Out, Die Hard 2 and Days of Thunder. He has co-starred with actors such as Robert De Niro, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and Alec Baldwin. (Thompson also was in Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie JFK because the director used footage from the Watergate hearings in which Thompson participated.) Unlike President Reagan, Thompson doesn’t really have a Bedtime for Bonzo to haunt him, although he did appear in 1991’s Curly Sue.
But he does have at least one weakness in acting: “I don’t think he can do anything but his Tennessee accent!” said producer Mace Neufeld, who produced several movies featuring Thompson, including The Hunt for Red October. “It’s like asking Sean Connery to play an Italian. … I would never ask Fred to play an Italian.”
Joked Donaldson, “He’s not going to get many parts playing a Yankee, is he? He has got a great voice and a wonderful accent that is very charming and hypnotic. His voice is very much a part of who he is as a successful actor.”
Neufeld also wouldn’t turn to Thompson to play a villain, “unless I wanted the audience to be completely surprised because I think he plays a bad villain. It’s the same reason that I wouldn’t cast Harrison Ford as a bad guy because he is just playing against who he is.”
But Riegert disagreed. “He would be a great bad guy, oh my God, because bad guys are charming. Otherwise you would walk away from them immediately.”
Donaldson said, “Fred can play anything.”
Acting just comes easy
It’s been frequently said that Thompson merely “plays himself,” a phrase that those who have worked with him say is untrue but is the ultimate compliment for an actor. “All the great stars ‘played themselves,’ ” said Gaydos, citing Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. “Thompson is pretty damn good. You don’t see him working it. It’s a hallmark of a first-rate actor.”
Neufeld said, “He is not playing himself, but the kind of straightforward, good-natured honesty that I find in Fred as a friend comes through when he is playing a part. It’s a likability.”
Thompson did play himself in his first role in 1985’s Marie, which starred Sissy Spacek and was filmed in Nashville. In the movie, as in real life, he represented Marie Ragghianti, the chairwoman of the state’s parole board who lost her job after reporting Gov. Ray Blanton’s cash-for-clemency scandal.
“Fred Thompson was the lawyer who was the backbone for the whole piece, in a way,” Donaldson said. “Fred is a larger-than-life character, and I was having trouble finding someone who sounded like a genuine Southerner who could play him in the film.
“The idea of him playing himself was reached and so I said to Fred, ‘Would you be interested at having a go at playing yourself?’ He was like, ‘Shucks, do you think I could do that?’ I said, ‘You never know until you try.’ ”
Ragghianti said, “Fred asked me what I thought and if I minded, and I said, ‘No.’ I thought he would be great, and he was. I don’t think he had any difficulty at all. He related well to the other actors and actresses, and they all related to him.”
She said he took to acting immediately. “He used to say jokingly, ‘You know, Marie, it’s like finding money in the street.’ It was that easy for him. He really enjoys it, like some men enjoy playing golf. I think he finds it somewhat challenging.”
Donaldson was so impressed that he later placed Thompson in two more movies — No Way Out (1987) and White Sands (1992). “The idea that he would have changed his career and become an actor, I don’t think I would have predicted that at that time, not because of his acting ability. He was entrenched in his law practice.”
In 1992, Thompson told The Tennessean that acting didn’t interfere with his law practice. “Almost everything I do takes only a few days, and no client is ever more than a few minutes away by telephone.”
He keeps low N.Y. profile
Thompson took a hiatus from acting in 1994, when he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Perhaps ironically, it was his powerful political position, and not his acting roles, that sealed his celebrity status. Then divorced, he developed the reputation as a ladies’ man and was romantically linked to country singer Lorrie Morgan, Time magazine’s Margaret Carlson and cosmetics executive Georgette Mosbacher.
But that all changed when his daughter Elizabeth “Betsy” Panici died at age 38. He decided not to run for re-election in 2002, and on June 29, 2002, he married attorney/political consultant Jeri Kehn.
“When he retired from the Senate, I heard that he told his agent that he might do TV if he could get on a show like Law & Order,” said the show’s creator, Dick Wolf. “So I called him cold, said that I had heard what he said and would he like a job on Law & Order? He said, ‘As what?’ and I said as the DA. I certainly didn’t think it was much of a reach.
“He was perfectly cast in the Watergate hearings, and he carried that same reassuring, commanding presence when he went into acting. Let’s face it, I cast him as President Grant in Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.”
Thompson lives in northern Virginia and commutes to New York to shoot Law & Order.
“He has managed to keep a very low profile here in New York,” said the New York Post’s Richard Johnson, editor of the celebrity-driven Page Six. “If he wasn’t on Law & Order, I don’t think we have enough people who follow public policy who would recognize him as a former senator.”