R.I.P. Fred Thompson, Actor, Senator, and Republican Presidential Candidate


Hunt for Red October, Paramount Pictures

“How can a president not be an actor?” Ronald Reagan once said when asked how an actor could become president.

I’m reminded of that quote when I think of Fred Dalton Thompson. Thompson was a Watergate lawyer who became an actor who became a Senator and then ran briefly for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008.

He dropped out of the primary after failing to attract much sustained support, but his life and career served as a reminder of the essential link and similarities between politics and entertainment.

After serving as a counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee in the early 1970s, Thompson’s acting career began in the late 1980s. He played supporting roles in movies such as No Way Out and Fat Man and Little Boy

He went on to play numerous other roles in the following years, including a memorably grave Navy Admiral in The Hunt for Red October and a key supporting part as an air-traffic-control director forced to deal with a chaotic terrorist attack in 1990’s Die Hard 2.

Neither of those roles were showy, and you can easily imagine lesser performers disappearing into the parts. But they played to Thompson’s strengths; he projected authority, responsibility, and competency, even as everything went to hell around him. You could imagine Thompsonâ€"or at least the character he playedâ€"being in charge, and being good at it.

Thompson went on to serve two terms as a Republican Senator from Tennessee, from 1994 to 2003, easily winning both elections by large margins. The ease with which he appears to have transitioned from life as a working actor to life as a U.S. Senator (after having already gone from being a Senate aide to a screen-actor) probably suggests something about how much the two jobs in common.

He then returned to acting, most notably as District Attorney Arthur Branch on the long-running crime procedural Law & Order as well as several of its spinoffs. It was a supporting role designed largely as a vehicle for the quick delivery of expository plot details, but once again Thompson made it memorable, imbuing the part with a stern sense of command and judgment.

Thompson sought to capitalize on that same impression in his 2008 run for president, but he could never quite pull it off. In the debates, he never seemed quite well enough prepared, and the presidential persona he was obviously aiming for never quite stuck. At heart, Thompson was always a character actor, not a leading man.

At the same time, his unwillingness to dig too deep into the role was unexpectedly endearing. He wanted to be president, but he was not mad for the job or what it might bring. As George Mason Law Professor Ilya Somin said in a Facebook post last night, it may be that Thompson’s “most admirable qualification for the presidency was that he clearly did not want the office nearly as much as most other candidates, and largely lacked their obvious lust for power.”

Like all politicians, he was an actor playing a part. But unlike so many, he didn’t let it consume him. 

Thompson died yesterday in Nashville, TN. He was 73. R.I.P.


Correction: In the original version of this post, I stated that Thompson appeared in the 1987 James Bond movie The Living Daylights. That's wrong. He wasn't in the movie. I watched part of the movie over the weekend, confused actor Joe Don Baker for Thompson, and failed to check the credits. I apologize for this easily avoidable error. 

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  1. I had almost forgotten about his presidential run. To be fair, it seemed like he did too, about 10 minutes into the first Republican debate.

    1. Back then my wife was a supporter of his, wearing a “I’m with Fred” t-shirt at a 10k run. That got a whole bunch of “who?” from other people. For whatever reason, Fred just seemed to lack name recognition.

  2. Who here would not have felt safe and secure with President Fred Thompson in the White House. NONE OF YOU.

    1. I’d be afraid that the situation would get out of control.

      1. And we’d be lucky to live through it.

  3. As George Mason Law Professor Ilya Somin said in a Facebook post last night, it may be that Thompson’s “most admirable qualification for the presidency was that he clearly did not want the office nearly as much as most other candidates, and largely lacked their obvious lust for power.”

    Yes, but the object of power is power.

  4. Fuck. Who is going to tell me all about reverse mortgages now?

    1. The Fonz, of course

    2. *hands HeMo a tissue*

      The good news is William Devane would still like to discuss the benefits of owning gold with you.

      1. Thank God! A world where Robert Vaughn can’t direct us to legal advice is a world I don’t want to live in.

    3. Rick Perry needs a job!

    4. Perhaps Alex Trebek will see fit to branch out from Term Life Insurance to other financial instruments.

  5. are you confusing Fred with Joe Don Baker in Living Daylights?

    JD also played the CIA role in Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies.

    1. And of course, who can forget JDB’s magnum opus, Mitchell?

      1. Servo: Who’s the puffy guy who’s a big blurry sex machine?
        Joel, Crow: Mitchell!
        Servo: That Mitchell is one fat s?
        Joel, Crow: Shut yo’ mouth!
        Servo: I’m just talkin’ ’bout Mitchell!

        1. Mitchell: Even his name says ‘is that a beer?’


        JDB’s best role, supporting though it is.

        And yes, they cropped the thing probably to circumvent copyright…

        The production was pretty much a Clint Eastwood movie without Eastwood – all of his stock players, Seigel directing, music, writing. He obviously couldn’t have been Varrick.

        And where the whole pliers and blowtorch meme got its start…

  6. He taught the world to never take a dump without a plan

  7. He was like a rich man’s Joe Don Baker.

    1. Do you expect me to talk?

      No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to live in your home with the help of a reverse mortgage.

  8. I was disappointed when he started selling scammy reverse mortgages.

    1. nothing scammy about a loan that charges interest, although for some reason heirs seem to hate them.

    2. Like all exotic loan types, many have a legitimate purpose for the right group.

  9. Fred’s digital avatar or anonymous moniker has been left to exist somewhere on this web indefinitely. Probably had a few places he’d post some shit under Battleship_America_Man or CrimeStalkerAK47 or FuckYou4EvA_Sinners. Brain crumbs from a dead Fred people will respond to perhaps in 2017 or 2020 on fucking Disqus. Dead man conversing.

  10. What kind of asshole wears CNT’s out at sea?

  11. Rip, Fred. I always liked you.

    If this doesn’t simultaneously make you laugh, cry, and scratch your head, you’re asleep.

    If you follow through the link, you’ll get to read a wonderful passage about how America’s thinnest-skinned mayor whinges about why hillary hasn’t asked him to the dance.…..didnt-ask/

    “Murray is one of the two highest-profile LGBT majors in America. The other, Annise Parker of Houston, graced Clinton’s announcement by saying: “She has an emotional connection to the American people and how difficult it is for the average family to make ends meet.”

    Mayor Bill De Blasio of New York was less gushy: “She’s very cold-eyed, and that’s what you want in a president.””

  12. and the underrated Timothy Dalton-era James Bond installment The Living Daylights, which cast him as Bond’s arms-dealer nemesis, gleefully declaring the glories of advanced military weaponry while blasting away at the famous fictional spy. Thompson slightly overplayed the part, but watching the film now you can tell he’s having fun, and his obvious sense of enjoyment at playing a villain in a Bond film is pleasantly infectious.

    Oh, Suderman.

    How you write a whole paragraph about this without doing a 10-second IMDB search is beyond me.

  13. Fred was my sort-of Senator at the time along with Frist, and the world has had worse than either. Like the two jackassses currently serving as TN Senators.

    Anyway, it was always fun to point Fred out to political naifs in DH2 and Hunt.

  14. It’s Joe Don Baker who appeared in all three Bond films, not Thompson.

  15. I remember back in 08 when I got excited about Ron Paul and even did some grassroots stuff for a very short while, which I now regret because I felt really stupid doing it. Anyway, there was this girl in the group of people handing out flyers and CDs and such who told me, “If Ron Paul drops out I’m supporting Fred Thompson.” It was like a slap in the face. Do you not at all understand who and what you are supporting here? WTF?

  16. Thompson’s first role was playing himself in the 1985 movie Marie starring Sissy Spacek. That movie dramatized the corruption in the Blanton (D) admin in Tennessee. Blanton and his cronies were granting clemencies and reduced sentences for inmates, for a price naturally. IIRC, Thompson was a US Atty when the corruption came to light and played a role in ending the corruption (it’s been some time since I saw the movie so the details are fuzzy). It was playing himself in that movie that first put him if front of the camera and paved the way for his move to acting a few years later.

  17. I first noticed him in the under-rated ‘Wiseguy’.
    He played a sleazy white supremacist leader/grifter. Just a few episodes, but made an impression.

  18. Sounds like a rock solid plan dude.

    1. His wing man kept requesting permission to fire. Somebody messes up, we’ll be in the biggest naval battle since the Jutland.

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