Fred Thompson Dies in Nashville

Memphis State graduate rose from humble origins in Middle Tennessee to become Senator and presidential prospect, meanwhile moon-lighting as movie star.


Fred Thompson
  • Fred Thompson

Fred Dalton Thompson, a 1964 Memphis State graduate who leaped from modest Tennessee connections into a pivotal role in national politics and a thriving movie career as an actor, has died in Nashville from a recurrence of lymphoma.

A native of Lawrenceburg in Middle Tennessee, Thompson picked up a law degree from Vanderbilt after graduation from Memphis State and soon was attracted to Republican politics, at a time when the state GOP began making itself a force in the mid-‘60s. After managing the unsuccessful congressional campaign of Memphian John T. Williams, Thompson caught on with another rising Republican from East Tennessee, Howard Baker.

Later, Baker, serving as ranking Republican on the Senate Watergate committee, managed to get his protégé named as counsel of the committee’s GOP contingent. As Baker took his role as a fact-finder on the committee seriously, so did Thompson, and it was the youthful Tennessean whose question would elicit the fateful revelation of President Nixon’s Oval Office taping system.

After practicing law and working as a lobbyist in Washington, Thompson achieved recognition again in the late ‘70s when he represented Tennessee parole administrator Marie Rigghianti in a wrongful termination case after she had been a whistleblower regarding then Governor Ray Blanton’s pardons-for-sale scandal.

When the movie Marie was made about the case, the imposing, deep-voiced Thompson was asked to play himself. The positive reviews he got ignited a long-running second career as a Hollywood actor, and, even as he continued with legal and lobbying work and stayed connected with the political world, Thompson had major roles in such films as : Days of Thunder, The Hunt for Red October, and Die Hard 2.

His renewed celebrity also led state Republicans to recruit Thompson as a candidate in the 1994 U.S. Senate race, which he won handily over Nashville Democrat Jim Cooper. During the campaign, congressional Republicans had started the long, drawn-out fishing expedition against the Clintons called Whitewater, and Thompson raised eyebrows within his party when he gave a lengthy interview to the Flyer condemning what he saw as a new tendency to achieve political ends by attempting to criminalize the opposition.

Almost immediately upon taking office in Washington, Thompson began to be talked about as a prospective future presidential candidate. But it soon became obvious that the fire for such an ambitious venture did not burn brightly in his belly.

Even his Senate career lost appeal to him after the untimely death of his daughter Betsy in January 2002. He decided not to run for reelection that year, and former Governor Lamar Alexander won the race to succeed him. Thompson signed on with NBC’s Law & Order program in the running role of District Attorney Arthur Branch.

A few years later, however,, the national GOP was looking desperately for a candidate to run for president in 1978, and Thompson was talked into running for the Republican nomination. Once again, however, either a lack of enthusiasm or bad timing or a failure to find the right issues hindered his efforts, and he dropped out of the GOP primary race after finishing poorly in a South Carolina primary.

In recent years, Thompson had maintained his political, lobbying, and business connections and still got a fair share of acting jobs on TV and movie and performed in a few memorable infomercials.

Thompson is survived by his wife Jery; his son Tony, a legislative lobbyist who has represented Memphis; another son, Samuel; and a daughter, Hayden Victoria.

Here are a few of many testimonials made about Thompson as news of his death became known:

U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander:  “Very few people can light up the room the way Fred Thompson did. He used his magic as a lawyer, actor, Watergate counsel, and United States senator to become one of our country’s most principled and effective public servants. He was my friend for nearly fifty years. I will miss him greatly. Honey and I and our entire family send our love and sympathy to Jeri and the Thompson family.”

Tennessee Democratic House leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley: "Pam & I were sad to learn about the passing of Senator Fred Thompson. From his time as a young attorney on the Watergate Committee to his years in the United States Senate, Fred Thompson leaves behind an honorable legacy of public service. Our thoughts and prayers are with his entire family, especially his son Tony, during this difficult time."

Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Ryan Haynes, "The news of Senator Thompson's passing gives me a heavy heart. This is a sad moment for all of us as our state has lost a larger-than-life figure. His quick wit, his hospitality, and his conservative beliefs reflected the best attributes of Tennessee. Senator Thompson was a statesman in every sense of the word. He will be missed as much for his friendship as he will for his leadership."

U.S. Senator Bob Corker: “Fred Thompson served the people of Tennessee and America with great honor and distinction. From the courtroom to Capitol Hill to Hollywood, his larger than life personality was infectious and had a way of making all of those around him strive to be better. Through his many different roles in public life, Fred never forgot where he came from, and our state and country miss his common sense approach to public service. I greatly appreciated his friendship and am saddened to learn of his passing. Elizabeth and I extend our thoughts and prayers to his wife, Jeri, the Thompson family and all those who were impacted by Fred’s life.”

Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey: "An iconic presence in both politics and film, Fred Thompson was a proud son of Lawrence County and a thoroughly effective public servant. Whether it was on the screen or in the Senate, Fred always made you proud to be a Tennessean. I was truly fortunate to count him as a friend. He will be missed."

Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-8th): “I am deeply saddened by the passing of my dear friend, Senator Fred Thompson. Fred worked each day to preserve our special Tennessee values and I will forever be appreciative of his conservative leadership and all that he did for our great state. He will be greatly missed. Lynn and I send our thoughts and prayers to his wife, Jeri and all the Thompson family.”

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-9th): "I am saddened to hear of the passing of Senator Fred Thompson. Fred served the United States and the state of Tennessee with distinction for 8 years in Congress. I was present when the National Conference of State Legislatures awarded him the Restoring the Balance Award for his dedication to federalism. For Fred, it was not a political or campaign issue, it was his philosophy. He was a proud graduate of the University of Memphis and the only U of M grad to ever serve in the U.S. Senate. Despite our political differences, Fred was always encouraging to me and I valued our friendship. He led an eclectic life from his time as an outstanding congressional staffer during the Watergate hearings and as a fine attorney, actor, and public servant. His was a life very well lived. I send my condolences to his family."

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