“Fred once said that the experiences he had growing up in small-town Tennessee formed the prism through which he viewed the world and shaped the way he dealt with life. Fred stood on principle and common sense, and had a deep love for and connection with the people across Tennessee whom he had the privilege to serve in the United States Senate. He enjoyed a hearty laugh, a strong handshake, a good cigar, and a healthy dose of humility. Fred was the same man on the floor of the Senate, the movie studio, or the town square of Lawrenceburg, his home.
“Fred believed that the greatness of our nation was defined by the hard work, faith, and honesty of its people. He had an enduring belief in the exceptionalism of our country, and that America could provide the opportunity for any boy or girl, in any corner of our country, to succeed in life. “
As an attorney, he helped lead to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. As a politician, he served the state of Tennessee for eight years as a conservative Republican in the U.S. Senate and briefly as a possible GOP presidential nominee. As an actor, he stared in some of the most prominent films and television series of his time.
At 6’5″ with a booming voice, Mr. Thompson and his larger-than-life persona played a role in several key moments that shaped the U.S. and Tennessee political landscape.
Born in Alabama, Fred Dalton Thompson grew up across the state line in Lawrenceburg, Tenn. Known then as “Freddie,” Mr. Thompson was described as a “class cut-up” and “clown” by a high school basketball teammate in a Boston Globe article.
Although he was a well-respected athlete, his high school banned him playing basketball after he married then-wife Sarah Lindsey at the age of 17. Not a particularly impressive student, he struggled with school and his future until his father-in-law gave him the autobiography of Clarence Darrow, the famed attorney from the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tenn.
“I just knew it, I was 17 and I wanted be a lawyer, it’s the only thing I considered for five minutes,” Mr. Thompson told the Globe in 2007. “Until I was 17, it never occurred to me I had to be anything, but at 17 I knew I wanted to be a lawyer.”
He made good on his plans, earning a law degree from Vanderbilt University in 1967. Mr. Thompson started working as an assistant U.S. attorney, where he met current U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander. Alexander introduced him to longtime U.S. Sen. Howard Baker, according to the Globe profile.
Baker became a mentor for Mr. Thompson, in both his professional and political life. In turn, Mr. Thompson served as Baker’s campaign manager during his successful 1972 run. That relationship brought Mr. Thompson to Washington, D.C. and to a role within the Watergate investigation.
‘Oh shit, that kid’
Baker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Watergate Committee investigating President Richard Nixon, secured a job for Mr. Thompson as committee counsel. At the time, Nixon was none-too-pleased with the appointment of Mr. Thompson. who was 30 at the time. Mr. Thompson wasn’t “very smart” in the eyes of Nixon, according to a 2007 review by The Associated Press of White House tapes.
“Oh shit, that kid,” Nixon said when told by his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, of Mr. Thompson’s appointment on Feb. 22, 1973, according to the review.
“Well, we’re stuck with him,” Haldeman said.
Although the same tapes showed Nixon thought Mr. Thompson would be friendly to his cause — Baker reportedly assured Nixon that Mr. Thompson was a “big mean fella” — it was Mr. Thompson’s knowledge of the tapes themselves that helped seal the president’s fate.
Lore says it was Mr. Thompson who helped phrase the famed Baker question, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” But the Associated Press accounting notes a different question from Mr. Thompson himself that truly spurred Nixon’s downward spiral.
Through GOP investigators, Mr. Thompson learned from former White House aide Alexander Butterfield about the recording system within the White House. Although Thompson told the White House that the committee knew about the tapes, a move that resulted in years of criticism from Democrats, he still was the first to bring up the matter of the tapes in a public hearing.
On July 16, Mr. Thompson asked Butterfield during a hearing if he was “aware of he installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president.” As noted in the AP report, the question, and it’s answer, precipitated the president’s resignation nearly one year later.
“Legalisms aside, it was inconceivable to me that the White House could withhold the tapes once their existence was made known. I believed it would be in everyone’s interest if the White House realized, before making any public statements, the probable position of both the majority and the minority of the Watergate committee,” Mr. Thompson wrote in one of his books, according to the report.
Mr. Thompson worked as a lobbyist off and on roughly more than 20 years after serving as counsel to several legislative committees.
In 1977, Mr. Thompson found himself representing the whistleblower in on of Tennessee’s biggest political scandals. In her role as a parole administrator, Marie Rigghianti refused to release inmates granted pardons after paying then-Gov. Ray Blanton. Thompson successfully represented Rigghianti in a wrongful termination case, helping her win a settlement and return to her job in 1978.
That case eventually became the subject of a book and launched Mr. Thompson’s acting career. Mr. Thompson played himself in the 1985 version of the movie “Marie.” Critics praised his performance, and more roles soon followed.
Five years later, Mr. Thompson had roles in three of the biggest films of 1990: “Days of Thunder,” “The Hunt for Red October” and “Die Hard 2.” He also enjoyed a five-year run on NBC’s “Law and Order” as Arthur Branch from 2002-2007.
Though he took a break to run for Republican nomination for president in 2008, acting remained a constant in Mr. Thompson’s life.
He appeared in box-office hits as recently as 2012, with a role in the horror film “Sinister,” and had a recurring role on NBC’s short-lived 2015 series “Allegiance.”
Senate and the presidency
In 1994, Mr. Thompson successfully earned a seat in the U.S. Senate, in the race to serve out the remainder of then-Vice President Al Gore’s term in the Senate. He defeated current U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, by a wide margin.
While Cooper criticized Mr. Thompson for acting like a Tennessean while living the life of a Washington lobbyist and Hollywood star, Mr. Thompson argued in a New York Times article that “in many respects, I am an average Tennessean.”
“I worked in a factory. I drive a truck. I practice law. I was a Federal prosecutor. I’ve worked without health insurance. I’ve worked for minimum wage…Like a lot of people in Tennessee, I had to get with it to get by,” Thompson told the Times in 1994.
Mr. Thompson won re-election in 1996 by an equally wide margin, but chose not to run again in 2002.
He returned to acting, assuming his well-known role on “Law and Order” in 2002. However, he started to again move away from acting and back toward politics in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election. Eventually announcing as a candidate, Thompson underwhelmed. He never placed higher than third in any of the early primary states, and dropped out of the race in late January of 2008.
In his book “Teaching the Pig to Dance: A Memoir of Growing Up and Second Chances,” Mr. Thompson described his failed candidacy as the first time in his life he “couldn’t accomplish something I had set out to do.”
“It occurred to me that, to paraphrase one of Churchill’s comments, perhaps I had more to be humble about that I had realized. It also occurred to me that this was a pretty doggone expensive way to achieve a little humility,” Mr. Thompson wrote in the book, published in 2010.
“Maybe I needed to be reminded of what an old-timer told me years ago after I’d had some success: ‘Just remember, son, the turnout at your funeral is still going to depend a hell of a lot on the weather.’”
Thompson is survived by son Fred Thompson Jr., who goes by Tony. His wife Jeri and their two young children.