Fred Dalton Thompson will join the race for president of the United States, with an official campaign launch expected Thursday after the obligatory pre-announcement on “The Tonight Show.”
Clearly, Thompson fills a void among Republicans, many of whom are suspicious regarding the conservative credentials of Rudy Giuliani (pro-choice!), Mitt Romney (Mormon!) and John McCain (all kinds of bad liberal-ish stuff!). What he does not do — despite several recent media accounts that have said as much — is introduce a “movie star” to the field.
Cary Grant and Bette Davis were movie stars. So is Sean Connery. Among Thompson’s contemporaries, Harrison Ford, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Meryl Streep qualify.
Yet as Chris Rock noted at the Oscars, the term gets bandied about far too loosely — in Thompson’s case, through a combination of laziness, ignorance (many political junkies probably haven’t seen his movies and don’t watch “Law & Order”) and the desire to recycle a predigested narrative that isn’t nearly as exciting when prefaced by “character actor,” “supporting player” or “third banana,” which is what he’s been.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is another movie star, one whose electoral aspirations are curtailed by an accident of birth. Like Thompson, he fits the pattern of actors seeking office as Republicans — whose party derides Hollywood liberals as ill-informed dilettantes but adores conservative performers, especially if their demo reel includes wielding machine guns. (Secretly, right-leaning talkradio and cable hosts love outspoken lefties such as Sean Penn and Barbra Streisand, who create opportunities to discuss pop culture and hopefully entice more casual viewers — preferably under 60 — to tune in.)
The theoretical political template for Thompson is Ronald Reagan, who demonstrated the value of having someone occupy the White House who could deliver a speech or yarn with folksy conviction. Reagan was never a major headliner (the famous story is that had he landed the lead in “Casablanca,” he would have grown too popular to ever become president), but he did star in numerous movies, albeit mostly mediocre ones.
To call Thompson a “movie star,” by contrast, is to sound like an out-of-town rube who sees a vaguely recognizable actor at the Farmers Market or from a tour bus, exclaiming, “Hey, a movie star! I think he was, like, that military guy in ‘The Hunt for Red October!’”
This is not meant to diminish Thompson’s acting abilities, though his range of roles has been a trifle limited. Personally, I’m fondest of his work as a privileged CEO in HBO’s 1993 satire “Barbarians at the Gate,” only one of the titles from his filmography (along with “In the Line of Fire,” “Bed of Lies,” “No Way Out,” “Days of Thunder” and, given the coverage devoted to his much-younger wife, “Unholy Matrimony”) that might be referenced should the candidate commit a gaffe during his campaign.
Thompson has also played presidents, most recently Ulysses S. Grant in HBO’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” produced by “Law & Order” patriarch Dick Wolf. Prior to that, he appeared as a politician on “Sex and the City,” served as a fictional commander-in-chief in “Last Best Chance” (another potential headline as the campaign progresses) and provided Andrew Jackson’s voice in a TV movie.
The most intriguing aspect of Thompson’s resume, however, has been its rare revolving-door quality. He worked as an attorney in GOP political circles before picking up acting in his 40s, gave up the screen to become a U.S. senator from Tennessee in 1994, then left office eight years later and promptly signed on as the gruff district attorney on “Law & Order.”
In this respect, Thompson’s career is a bit like those football coaches who fill time between coaching gigs as ESPN analysts. Although politicians approximate this exercise by becoming news pundits, the partition between supporting parts and public service hasn’t traditionally been as porous as Thompson has rendered it.
So after months waiting for Thompson to make a decision, the lawyer-actor-lobbyist-politician-actor becomes a full-time politician again, with all the elbow-throwing that entails. And while I wouldn’t presume to handicap his chances, to paraphrase another Southern solon: I know something about movie stars, and senator, you’re no movie star.