NASHVILLE — Fred Thompson, a folksy former Republican U.S. senator from Tennessee who appeared in feature films and television including a role on “Law & Order,” died Sunday, his family said.
He was 73.
Thompson, at 6-foot-6 with a booming voice, appeared in at least 20 motion pictures. 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.
The family statement said Thompson died Sunday in Nashville following a recurrence of lymphoma. It added he was surrounded by his family.
“It is with a heavy heart and a deep sense of grief that we share the passing of our brother, father and grandfather who died peacefully in Nashville,” the statement added. “Fred was the same man on the floor of the Senate, the movie studio, or the town square of … his home.”
Thompson, a lawyer, alternated between politics and acting much of his adult life. Once regarded as a rising star in the Senate, he retired from that seat when his term expired in January 2003, saying he didn’t have the drive for another term.
“I simply do not have the heart for another six-year term,” Thompson said in a written statement 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 that he would seek the Republican presidential nomination. Dogged by accusations he was not a hard worker, 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.
After leaving the race, he campaigned extensively for 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 after connecting with voters. In 1996 he easily won a six-year term.
Thompson’s key prop was a red pickup truck that he used to crisscross the state throughout the campaign. In the end, Thompson captured 60 per cent of the vote against then-Democratic Rep. 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.
The son of a car salesman, Thompson was born in Sheffield, Ala., and grew up in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., 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 from Memphis State University in 1964 and earned his law degree from Vanderbilt University in 1967. To pay for school, 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 U.S. attorney, then volunteered in 1972 to work on the re-election campaign of former Republican Sen. Howard Baker. A year later, Baker selected Thompson to be chief minority counsel on the committee investigating the Watergate scandal.
Afterward, 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.”
He said he was disappointed the Governmental Affairs Committee didn’t get more time in 1997 to investigate the fundraising practices of the 1996 presidential election.
Some thought his high-profile role as chairman of the hearings could launch a presidential bid. That did not materialize in 2000 after the hearings were dismissed as political theatre.
“They ran me for a while and then they took me out of the race, and all the time I was kind of a bystander,” Thompson said in 2002 about speculation over his presidential prospects two years earlier.
Nevertheless, he won praise from some for his commitment to better government.
“He has a real dedication to a lot of the nuts and bolts government reform issues that others just don’t care about,” Norm Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said at the time.
Just before leaving the Senate, Thompson said too much time was spent on meaningless matters and partisan bickering.
“On important stuff, where the interests are really dug in on both sides, it’s extremely difficult to get anything done,” Thompson had told AP at the time.
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 American Advisers Group, a reverse mortgage financial company.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.