“It is with a heavy heart and a deep sense of grief that we share the passing of our brother, husband, father, and grandfather who died peacefully in Nashville surrounded by his family,” reads the statement from his family.
Fact and fiction blurred in the narrative of Thompson’s life. A lawyer who was an investigator for the Republicans on the Senate Watergate Committee, he began his acting career late in life, playing authority figures, including two U.S. presidents, only to decide to enter politics and serve as a U.S. senator from Tennessee.
Thompson’s conservative D.A. Arthur Branch was brought aboard “Law & Order” in 2002 after Dick Wolf and the other creatives behind NBC’s long-running franchise recognized a shift in the political winds in the U.S. in the wake of 9/11. (He replaced Dianne Wiest’s staunchly liberal, highly academic Nora Lewin as Manhattan district attorney.) Thompson’s Southern accent might have counted against him for the role of New York D.A., but the actor possessed the intelligence, gravitas and sense of authority necessary. He appeared as Branch on 117 episodes from 2002-2007, joining the show in the final months of his second term in the Senate, which likely made him the first sitting U.S. senator to portray someone other than himself on television. Thompson also appeared on episodes of the various “Law & Order” spinoffs.
During Thompson’s run as Branch, the liberal point of view continued to be expressed on “Law & Order” by Sam Waterston’s Jack McCoy, putting the two characters in an ongoing state of relatively congenial conflict, while Branch sometimes revealed a softer side beneath the conservative hardliner.
Thompson served as senator from Tennessee from 1994 to 2003 and in May 2007 asked to be released from his “Law & Order” contract to prepare for a potential run at the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. He announced that he was running for president on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” on September 5, 2007, and withdrew from the race in January 2008.
According to a report in the Seattle Times, NBC did not air reruns featuring the Branch character while Thompson was a potential or actual presidential candidate due to concerns about the equal-time rule, but episodes on TNT were not affected.
Thompson first made a significant impression as an actor in 1990, appearing in both “The Hunt for Red October” and “Die Hard 2.” In the Tom Clancy adaptation, starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin, Thompson stood out for the sense of authenticity he brought to his brief role as an admiral who advises Baldwin’s Jack Ryan about how, to reach the title submarine, they would have to strip down a helicopter until it’s just a “flying gas can.”
In “Die Hard 2” he played Trudeau, the man who runs the control tower at Dulles National Airport, which is under siege by terrorists. Unlike Dennis Franz’s chief of airport police character, who resents and impedes the intercession of Bruce Willis’ John McClane, Thompson’s more secure, more pragmatic character accepts McClane’s help because he does not feel threatened by it and realizes it is necessary.
More recently, Thompson appeared in “Secretariat”; had a substantial role in the 2012 found-footage horror film “Sinister,” starring Ethan Hawke, in which Thompson played the sheriff; and also appeared that year in “The Last Ride,” a speculative look at the last three days in the life of Hank Williams.
In 2015 he was among the stars of the 2015 independent film “Unlimited,” in which he played the proprietor of an orphanage who’d left a lucrative career with NASA and as a consultant for Fortune 50o companies to serve a nobler purpose, and of the courtroom drama “A Larger Life.”
He voiced President Andrew Jackson in the telepic “Rachel and Andrew Jackson: A Love Story” in 2001 (Loretta Lynn voiced Rachel) and played President Ulysses S. Grant in the HBO movie “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” in 2007. He played William Jennings Bryan, once a candidate for president, in the 2010 feature “Alleged,” about the Scopes Monkey Trial.
Other TV appearances in recent years include two episodes of ” The Good Wife” in 2011-12 as Frank Michael Thomas (a thinly veiled version of himself) and two episodes of NBC series “Allegiance” as the FBI director in 2015.
Freddie Dalton Thompson was born in Sheffield, Alabama, but grew up in Tennessee. Becoming the first member of his family to go to college, he studied at Florence State College (now the University of North Alabama) before transferring to Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis), where he earned degrees in philosophy and political science in 1964. He earned his Juris Doctor degree from Vanderbilt law school in 1967.
He was an assistant U.S. attorney from 1969 to 1972. Thompson was minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee in its investigation of the Watergate scandal in 1973-74. (In 2007 the Washington Post reported, “Fred Thompson gained an image as a tough-minded investigative counsel for the Senate Watergate committee. Yet President Nixon and his top aides viewed the fellow Republican as a willing, if not too bright, ally, according to White House tapes.)
In the 1980s Thompson worked as an attorney, with law offices in Nashville and Washington, D.C., but was also appointed Special Counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (1980-81) and to the Senate Intelligence Committee (1982).
Thompson got into acting because he had successfully Marie Ragghianti in a corruption case against the governor of Tennessee, and the story was being made into a movie starring Sissy Spacek; after meeting Thompson, director Roger Donaldson asked him to play himself in the 1985 feature.
Thompson next appeared in a role as the CIA director in 1987 political thriller “No Way Out,” starring Kevin Costner. After guesting on TV shows including “Roseanne” and “China Beach,” he played Maj. Gen. Melrose Hayden Barry in the Manhattan Project drama “Fat Man and Little Boy,” starring Paul Newman, in 1989. For the next several years he was a busy actor, appearing in, among other films, Michael Apted’s legal thriller “Class Action”; the football comedy “Necessary Roughness”; Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear”; Luis Mandoki’s remake of “Born Yesterday” starring Melanie Griffith, in which Thompson played a U.S. senator; and Wolfgang Petersen’s Clint Eastwood starrer “In the Line of Fire,” in which he played the U.S. president’s chief of staff.
Having worked in government in an auxiliary capacity, in 1994 he was elected to complete the remainder of Al Gore’s term in the senate after the latter was elected vice president and was re-elected in 1996.
In recent years he had remained visible on television by acting as spokesman for a company selling reverse mortgages.
Thompson was twice married, the first time to Sarah Elizabeth Lindsey, when he was 17 in 1959 (they divorced in 1985). They had two sons and a daughter, the last of whom, Elizabeth “Betsy” Thompson Panici, died from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs in 2002.
He is survived by his second wife, Jeri Kehn Thompson, whom he married in 2002; two sons by Lindsey, Freddie Dalton “Tony” Thompson Jr. and Daniel Thompson; and two children by Kehn, a daughter Hayden and a son Samuel.
“Fred was one of the only people that I’ve met who was truly a renaissance man,” said “Law & Order” executive producer Dick Wolf. “Prosecutor, politician, actor, raconteur — no matter what he did, he did it incredibly well. And he was simply a great guy. He will be missed by all those whose lives he touched.”
“Fred made an impact in so many of lives, both in politics and the arts,” said SAG-AFTRA president Ken Howard in a statement. “A politician on the screen and in real life, Fred had a drive that led him to succeed in whatever path he chose. While Fred is now gone, his legacy lives on.”
Several celebrities, including Elisabeth Rohm who worked with Thompson on “Law & Order,” Tim McGraw, Michael McKean and Lou Diamond Phillips have taken to social media to pay tribute to him.