As Washington mourns the death of one of its own , former Sen. Fred Thompson, Hollywood is also contending with the loss of a reliable Washington heavy.
The Tennessee Republican was a hulking presence: 6 feet, 6 inches of Southern baritone drawl. His political work started as Republican counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee before he went into acting, and he spent decades toggling back and forth between the two worlds. Although his most famous role was likely as New York District Attorney Arthur Branch on multiple “Law and Order” shows, Thompson was a constant presence in fake Washington. He played presidents, members of Congress, FBI and CIA directors and one iconic transit bureaucrat.
Here are Thompson’s most memorable Washington roles.
- Sen. Norval Hedges in “Born Yesterday.” The 1993 remake of the 1950 classic about a businessman’s ex-showgirl lady friend taking Washington by storm was a key scrimmage for Thompson, who represented the upper chamber as Hedges. The critical bust came out on March 26, 1993. Despite the movie’s smelly reception, Thompson won a special election to succeed Vice President Al Gore as senator on Nov. 8, 1994.
- White House Chief of Staff Harry Sargent in “In the Line of Fire.” Sargent makes a big mistake: He doesn’t trust Clint Eastwood’s Frank Horrigan, a Secret Service agent trying to redeem himself for not saving President John F. Kennedy. Sargent scoffs at Horrigan’s warnings about staying out of California in the lead-up to the current president’s election. Bad move: John Malkovich’s presidential wanna-be assailant Mitch Leary is waiting. Sargent should also know better: Chiefs of staff shouldn’t be involved in the campaign, per ethics laws. Lucky for Sargent, Horrigan is played by Clint, who saves the day.
- FBI Deputy Director William Dawes in “Thunderheart.” Dawes’ name harks to both a colonial minuteman (William Dawes), as well as Rep. Henry Dawes, author of the Dawes Act that allotted Native American lands according to federal, not tribal preferences. That’s a lot of baggage for an FBI official who wants Val Kilmer’s Ray Levoi, a special agent of Sioux roots, to clean up a complicated and bloody mystery on the Sioux reservation in just three days. (Thompson got a promotion to “FBI director” in the 2015 television show “Allegiance,” a short-lived series NBC killed with extreme prejudice after just a few episodes.)
- President (Take Your Pick) in … Thompson wanted to be president. He ran for the GOP nomination in 2008, briefly, before giving up on the dream. He had to settle for playing multiple presidents. There were real ones: Ulysses. S. Grant in “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and Andrew Jackson in “Rachel and Andrew Jackson: A Love Story.” And a fake one: President Charles Ross in “Last Best Chance.” He even played a presidential hopeful who failed multiple times to win the Oval Office: William Jennings Bryan in “Alleged.”
- Ed Trudeau in “Die Hard 2.” Thompson played his share of ineffectual civil servants. Not so Trudeau, head of air traffic control at Dulles International Airport outside D.C., and target of terrorists during Christmas. Despite initial skepticism — “I know we’re dummies up here, McClane, so give us a little taste of your brilliant genius! I mean, you talking about a hijacking, a robbery or what?” — he eventually shows the good sense to get out of the way of John McClane, played by Bruce Willis. Then he gets back to directing traffic, with folksy language: “Alright everyone, let’s call all our birds and slow ’em down before we get a parking lot over our heads. The line starts at the Mississippi and they better start taking numbers.”
Thompson’s career path might have peaked when he left the arts to become a politician. He would return to being a thespian. It’s ironic the actor couldn’t return to Washington in 2008, just as the political world was at the dawn of a particularly theatrical time.
Fred Thompson Dies at 73
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