Fred Thompson, a folksy former Republican US senator and presidential contender from Tennessee who appeared in feature films and television series including a role on Law & Order, has died at 73.
Thompson, at 200cm with a booming voice, appeared in at least 20 films. His credits include In the Line of Fire, The Hunt for Red October, Die Hard II and Cape Fear. By the early 1990s, Thompson said he had become bored with his 10-year stint in Hollywood and wanted to go into public service. That’s when he headed back to Nashville and launched his Senate campaign. A man of many roles in life and on the screen, he was a lawyer by training and also once served as a chief minority counsel during the Senate Watergate hearings.
The family said Thompson died in Nashville following a recurrence of lymphoma. “It is with a heavy heart and a deep sense of grief that we share the passing of our brother, father and grandfather,” it said. “Fred was the same man on the floor of the Senate, the movie studio, or the town square.”
Once regarded as a rising star in the Senate, Thompson retired from his seat when his term expired in January 2003.
“I simply do not have the heart for another six-year term,” he said at the time. “Serving in the Senate has been a tremendous honour, but I feel that I have other priorities that I need to attend to.”
However, he returned to politics in 2007 by announcing he would seek the Republican presidential nomination. He dropped out in January 2008 after faring poorly in the early caucuses and primaries. “I hope that my country and my party have benefited from our having made this effort,” Thompson said at the time.
After leaving the race, he campaigned extensively for his party’s presidential nominee, John McCain, then sought support to become chairman of the Republican National Committee, but quit that quest after a few months.
Thompson took stock of his life after the January 2002 death of his daughter, Elizabeth Thompson Panici, 38, following an accidental prescription drug overdose.
Thompson’s rise to the Senate was atypical. He had never before held public office, but he overwhelmingly won a 1994 special election for Al Gore’s old Senate seat. In 1996 he easily won a six-year term.
Thompson’s key prop was a red ute he used to crisscross the state throughout the campaign. He captured 60 per cent of the vote against then Democratic congressman Jim Cooper.
“He’s got a little pizzazz, he’s got a sense of purpose and he’s got an independent streak,” Lamar Alexander said shortly after winning election to succeed Thompson in the Senate.
Alexander, the Republican senator, said that Thompson would be greatly missed: “Very few people can light up the room the way Fred Thompson did. 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.”
The son of a car salesman, Thompson was born in Sheffield, Alabama, and grew up in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, where he was a star athlete. He was 17 when he married Sarah Lindsey. The couple, who divorced in 1985, lived in public housing for a year as newlyweds.
Thompson graduated in 1964 from Memphis State University — now the University of Memphis — and earned his law degree from Vanderbilt University in 1967. To pay for his studies, he worked at a bicycle plant, post office and motel.
Thompson went on to become a lawyer in Nashville. In 1969, he became an assistant US lawyer, then volunteered in 1972 to work on the re-election campaign of former Republican senator Howard Baker. A year later, Baker selected Thompson to be chief minority counsel on the committee investigating the Watergate scandal.
Afterwards, Thompson returned to Tennessee and represented Marie Ragghianti, the head of the Tennessee Parole Board who was fired in 1977 after exposing a pardon-selling scheme.
Ragghianti won reinstatement and her case was made into a 1985 movie titled Marie, based on the 1983 book Marie: A True Story, by Peter Maas. The producers asked Thompson to play himself, and the role launched his acting career.
Thompson once called the Senate a “remarkable place” but, like Hollywood, said there was “frustration connected with it”.
After retiring from the Senate, Thompson took a role on the TV show Law & Order. In 2007, he portrayed Ulysses S. Grant in the TV movie Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
In June 2002, Thompson married Jeri Kehn, a political and media specialist.
After retiring from politics, Thompson hosted a conservative radio talk show between 2009 and 2011 and became a TV advertising pitchman for a reverse mortgage financial company.