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The accidental actor: How Fred Thompson got to Hollywood

🕐 7 min read

To a generation of Americans old enough to remember the Watergate hearings, Fred Thompson, who died Sunday at 73, was the Senate attorney whose question to a White House aide prompted the revelation that President Richard Nixon recorded conversations in the Oval Office. But to that generation’s children – perhaps less politically-attuned Gen Xers with access to basic cable’s endless supply of B-movies and endless reruns of “Law and Order” – Fred Thompson was That Guy: a stentorian character actor who often scolded or skeptically took stock of troublesome main characters played by actors much more famous than he.

Thompson, as perhaps befitted a U.S. senator who ran for the White House, played guys in charge. These guys were cranky because whatever they were in charge of was usually going awry, or because they were being challenged by some young hotshot. And, in Thompson’s gravelly voice – a voice that betrayed his childhood in a Tennessee town near the Alabama border – these guys were shouting. Or, more intimidatingly, they were whispering.

Thompson to Paul Newman in “Fat Man and Little Boy” (1989): “Since it’s so tough to get through to you, Groves, I decided to bring you my problem. See any tread on that tire? Because I sure as hell don’t. Yet that’s what my men are riding around on!”

Thompson to Tom Cruise (and Robert Duvall) in “Days of Thunder” (1990): “If you wanna turn yourselves into a greasy spot on a country road somewheres, go right ahead. I don’t give a s–, and I don’t think anybody else does. . . . But you two monkeys are not going to do it on my racetrack!”

Thompson to Alec Baldwin in “The Hunt for Red October” (1990): “The only way to get you into Dallas is to fly you out there in a chopper. And the only way we can get you that far north is to strip it down and turn it into a flying gas can!”

These decades-old plot points evaporate from a viewer’s memory as soon as the movies are over. What doesn’t is Thompson. Like the Rock of Gibraltar – or “Law and Order” on TNT – he’s always there.

Yet, Thompson didn’t plan the second career that, after his forgettable 2008 presidential campaign, is a large part of his legacy. He blossomed as a thespian half-a-decade after Watergate when, as a lawyer back in Nashville, he reluctantly took a very real case – and ended up playing himself in the movie of the story.

“The decision to take one of the least remunerative and longest-shot cases I’d ever had led to one of the most interesting chapters of my life,” he wrote in “Teaching the Pig to Dance,” a 2010 memoir. “It’s like I opened the door to what I thought was the courthouse and walked into Disneyland.”

In 1976, Marie Ragghianti, a mother of three who put herself through Vanderbilt University, was appointed chairman of Tennessee’s parole board by Gov. Ray Blanton, D. Yet she ran afoul of Blanton when, after learning the governor took cash in exchange for a convict’s clemency, she started voting against his recommendations. In 1978, she was fired after what turned out to be a largely groundless investigation of her expense records. She was also put under state surveillance, set up for DUI charges and falsely alleged to have stolen credit cards.

So, Ragghianti went to see a Tennessee lawyer she had seen on TV during Watergate: Fred Thompson.

“I tried to talk her out of a lawsuit,” Thompson wrote. “They could make her life miserable in ways that she could not understand.” Another problem: “Marie had uttered the most terrifying words that a lawyer can ever hear: ‘I am broke.'”

But Ragghianti’s story tugged at his heartstrings.

“The more I thought about it, the more I knew she was right about one thing: What they had done to her was cruel and unfair,” Thompson wrote. “. . . I never did like Blanton anyway. It would be fun to rattle his cage.”

The client secured her lawyer. As it turned out, the FBI were already on to Blanton’s scheming. Not only did Thompson and Ragghianti triumph in their civil case, but the governor was sentenced to three years in prison for extortion, among other charges.

“She’s the only woman who ever screwed me before I had a chance to screw her,” Blanton said.

Years later, Ragghianti – a lifelong Democrat who went on to serve on the U.S. Parole Commission during the Clinton administration – appeared in an ad for Thompson’s very Republican presidential campaign.

“I was convinced he had the courage to take on my fight,” she said in 2007. “And I was right. The governor went to prison, and I got my life back.”

Had Ragghianti and Thompson’s story ended there, it would have been incredible enough. But Peter Maas, who authored “Serpico” – an NYPD whistleblower who became the subject of an unforgettable film starring Al Pacino – was interested in writing a book about Ragghianti. When Ragghianti said she had met with Maas, Thompson was skeptical.

“If he is interested in this story, have him come to see me and explain why one of the best-known writers of nonfiction in America thinks that this Tennessee tale is worthy of his time,” he wrote.

Maas did. Then, with Ragghianti and Thompson’s help, he wrote the book. And when the guy who wrote “Serpico” writes a book, Hollywood comes calling. Soon, Thompson was meeting with producers trying “to get the flavor of the story and to help them in supervising the writing of the script,” he wrote. He even agreed to be on a list of locals who might appear as extras or in bit parts.

“I could envision a scene where I would walk in and say something like, ‘Your car is waiting, ma’am,’ and on opening night my friends and I could laugh about it,” Thompson wrote.

That was not to be, however. Ragghianti would be played by Sissy Spacek, fresh off winning an Oscar for “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” But producers were having trouble casting the part of Fred Thompson.

Might Fred Thompson be available?

“Things were moving from interesting to a little bizarre,” he wrote. “. . . The disadvantage was not knowing what the heck I was doing. The advantage was that by not being an actor, and by being totally out of my element, if I fell on my face it would not be that big a deal.”

So, in “Marie” (1985), there Thompson is. It is, indeed, a little bizarre.

Spacek-as-Ragghianti: “Somebody has to stand up to them, Fred!”

Thompson-as-Thompson: “Marie, they’re going to smear you with everything they can.”

The movie was not a huge smash. No Oscars. No reviews at Rotten Tomatoes. What was most memorable about it: Thompson.

“The real discovery of ‘Marie,’ though, is Fred Thompson,” The Washington Post wrote at the time. “A big man with a booming voice and noble rock of forehead, Thompson has a way of curling his lips and eyebrows into a look of supercilious contempt that will make you howl; his sly, muted performance makes the familiar courtroom scene (yes, he does badger the witness), fresh and new. He plays himself, and it’s the only thing in this true story that doesn’t seem fake.”

This wasn’t just inside-the-Beltway praise for an inside-the-Beltway player. The New York Times agreed: “Mrs. Ragghianti’s real lawyer, Fred Thompson, gives one of the film’s better performances playing himself.”

“Marie,” of course, was just the beginning. Thompson went to play dozens of frustrated men in power on the big and small screen, recently in NBC’s “Allegiance.” Thompson, who often pointed out he never had an acting lesson, was modest about his abilities.

“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,” he said in 1994.

Some said he was a natural – or, at least, a natural for the parts he played.

“Literally, I don’t think Fred ever acts,” Tom Ingram, a longtime friend who worked on Thompson’s Senate campaigns, said in 2007. “He played himself in ‘Marie,’ and he’s been playing himself ever since.”

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