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Fred Thompson’s Unique TV Arc: Nixon to Palin to 'Life on Mars'
November 2, 2015  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

Fred Thompson’s television arc wasn’t the most exhaustive, but it couldn’t have covered much more turf.

Over three decades Thompson went from the Watergate committee staffer who asked the question that nailed Richard Nixon to a hardline district attorney on Law & Order to the guy who gleefully informed America that Sarah Palin could field-dress a moose to the wise, well-dressed, trust-me gentleman selling senior citizens on reverse mortgages.

Thompson, who died Sunday at 73 after a long battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, also spent eight years as a United States senator from Tennessee – during which he polished the persona that eventually made him the ideal mortgage salesman.

Truth is, he sold things all his professional life. When he wasn’t holding government jobs or creating TV characters, he most often worked as a high-level lobbyist for groups like the savings & loan industry.

He had the air of the classic Southern politician, courtly yet homespun. He could sound Shakespearian or he could sound like Uncle Clem on the back porch, sometimes in the same sentence.

He talked in measured tones that simultaneously projected authority and an undertone of subtle bemusement.

It never seemed entirely coincidental that he took the role of District Attorney Arthur Branch on Law & Order (with Sam Waterston, right) while he was still a sitting U.S. senator. He barely had to change clothes.

Branch was Thompson’s best-known TV role and he kept it for five years, only leaving when he decided to run for President in 2007.

The President thing didn’t work out, but it didn’t tarnish Thompson’s brand. His speech about Palin at the 2008 convention was widely considered the best moment of the night, even if the ability to field-dress a moose didn’t ultimately catapult her to the vice presidency.

Early in his career Thompson’s drawl was considered a little too slow for the radio and TV talk show circuit. He corrected that problem and became a popular guest who also filled in for the late Paul Harvey and for a time had his own radio talk show.

His very first foray into television was less planned. After several years as a prosecutor, in 1973 he was appointed minority counsel for the Republicans in the Watergate hearings. In this position, he would in time hear flak from both sides.

President Richard Nixon worried that Thompson was too inexperienced to effectively counter Democratic attacks, while Nixon critics charged Thompson was a partisan rather than a legal investigator.

Whatever the nuances, he is widely credited with feeding Republican Sen. Howard Baker the most memorable motif question of the hearings: “What did the President know and when did he know it?”

Thompson himself was the interrogator who asked Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield if conversations in the Oval Office were taped. Butterfield’s affirmative reply would lead to the release of transcripts that forced Nixon to resign from office a year later.

That didn’t make Thompson famous overnight, but it did foreshadow a lifetime of TV appearances that continued right to the end with roles in shows like Life on Mars, The Good Wife and Allegiance. In Allegiance, he played the director of the FBI.

To the end, it seems, TV believed that people trusted him.
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It's not nice to knock the recent deceased. But as recent as this pat summer,Consumer Reports took Thompson(and recently turned 70 Henry "Fonz" Winkler) to task for those reverse mortgage ads that can often backfire for the estate and leave taxpayers holding the bag for the rest. It's really not nice to hurt the elderly, their loved ones in charge of financial matters after they die,or taxpapyers(through FHA insurance).
Nov 4, 2015   |  Reply
David Hinckley
I guess it's a lucrative and pretty easy gig to pitch products like this. You do hope the pitchers pay some attention to the potential effects.
Nov 13, 2015
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