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Fred Thompson: He Didn’t Just Play a Lawyer on TV

With his imposing stature and deep voice, Fred Thompson, who played district attorney Arthur Branch on the long-running TV series Law & Order, was utterly believable as a tough-but-wise authority figure.

But Thompson, who passed away Nov. 1 at age 73 in Nashville, didn’t just play a lawyer — he was one in real life. He first gained public attention as minority counsel for the Senate Watergate committee in 1973, when his questioning exposed a secret White House taping system. In addition to playing more than 50 roles on TV and in movies, Thompson served as a Republican U.S. senator from Tennessee from 1994 to 2003, and unsuccessfully ran for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination.

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Here are some more facts about his life and career:

  • The 6-foot-6 Thompson attended Memphis State University on a basketball scholarship, before going to law school at Vanderbilt University.
  • After his Watergate notoriety, he took on the case of an aide to Tennessee Gov. Ray Blanton, which led to a corruption investigation that sent the governor and other officials to jail. It also led to Thompson’s first acting role, playing himself alongside Sissy Spacek in the 1985 movie about the case, Marie: A True Story.
  • He twice played U.S. presidents on the screen, including Ulysses S. Grant in the 2007 TV movie Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
  • As a U.S. senator in 1999, he voted against both counts in the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.
  • In his 2010 memoir, Teaching a Pig to Dance, he noted that he initially considered another title, Why I’ve Had Such a Hard Time Keeping a Job, a joking reference to his careers in government and Hollywood.
  • Thompson was humble about his acting career. As he told interviewer Sam Donaldson in 1994: “When they needed some middle-aged guy who’d work cheap, they’d call me for a little part and I’d go out there two or three weeks and knock one out.”


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Here is Thompson’s final scene as Arthur Branch in Law & Order in 2007.

Photo: Ron Edmonds/AP Photo

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