Wednesday 18 September 2019

Obituaries: Fred Thompson

American senator who starred in the TV crime drama 'Law & Order'

Authority figure: Fred Thompson in 2007
Authority figure: Fred Thompson in 2007 Newsdesk Newsdesk

Fred Thompson, who died last Sunday aged 73, was an American lawyer, lobbyist and politician who also enjoyed a career as an actor; in 2008 he left the popular crime series Law & Order to become a presidential candidate.

During the 1990s and 2000s, he played numerous authority figures - lawyers, naval officers, FBI agents and senators - for both the big and small screen. Thompson was himself a senator, representing Tennessee between 1994 and 2003; he was pro-life, pro-gun lobby, a supporter of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and sceptical that humans were the cause of global warming. He was still a member of the US Senate in 2002, when he took the part of a Manhattan district attorney, Arthur Branch, in Law & Order. The drama series, which follows cases through from investigation to final judgment, echoed his own life: he had started his professional life as a lawyer in Tennessee.

In 2007, Thompson left the show, announcing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. His campaign, however, was a characteristically low-key affair. "I don't do frenetic very well," he explained. "I've done pretty well being me, and me is all they're going to get." A lack of support in the early stages, however, led to him withdrawing from the race in January 2008.

Freddie Dalton Thompson was born on August 19, 1942, in Sheffield, Alabama. His father was a second-hand car salesman and his grandparents ran a diner. Fred attended Lawrence County High School in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. He was popular but lacking in motivation; on his school year book his photograph was captioned: "The lazier a man is, the more he plans to do tomorrow." On leaving school, he worked in a bicycle factory and in a post office.

He was married at 17, to Sarah Lindsey, and embraced the Republican politics of his in-laws, a prominent local family. Having decided to go to university, he studied Philosophy and Political Science, first at Florence State College and later at Memphis State University. He then won a scholarship to Vanderbilt Law School, graduating in 1967, by which time he was a father of three. As a young lawyer, Thompson worked for his wife's uncle's practice. "Planned on being a country lawyer," he said. "Almost was."

His Republican credentials, however, led him to becoming a prosecutor for the district attorney in Nashville.

In 1973, he acted as counsel for Republican senators during the Senate Watergate Committee. Thompson was thought to have prompted the Republican Senator Howard Baker to ask: "What did the President know, and when did he know it?" Some consider that the question hastened the downfall of President Nixon.

Talking to his chief-of-staff Alexander Haig, Nixon called Thompson "dumb as hell".

In 1977, he represented Marie Ragghianti, a parole board official and whistleblower fired for refusing to give pardons to prisoners who had bribed aides to the Democratic governor of Tennessee. He won and the case was made into a film (Marie, 1985). Its director, Roger Donaldson, subsequently gave Thompson his first screen appearance, in the Kevin Costner thriller No Way Out (1987). Thompson's other film credits include Die Hard 2 and Days of Thunder (both 1990), and In the Line of Fire (1993).

In addition to his political and acting careers, he was a lobbyist for various clients.

Fred Thompson's first marriage was dissolved in 1985. He got married again in 2002 to Jeri Kehn, who survives him along with their son and daughter and two sons from his first marriage.

A daughter from his first marriage predeceased him.

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