New role for TV lawyer: teaching Roberts the ropes


Actor, ex-senator has job advising high-court nominee

Catching Up With ... Fred Thompson

July 31, 2005|By Matea Gold and Scott Collins | Matea Gold and Scott Collins,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Just because Fred Thompson has been squiring the new Supreme Court nominee around Capitol Hill doesn't mean he has given up greasepaint.

Thompson, a Republican Party stalwart and U.S. senator from 1994 to 2003, is serving as an informal adviser to John G. Roberts Jr., the judge chosen last week by President Bush to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the U.S. Supreme Court.

But while tutoring Roberts on the finer points of Senate relations, Thompson, 62, will have to squirrel away some time to memorize lines. NBC says the attorney-turned-actor is expected to continue his usual duties on Law & Order, where he plays craggy, baritone-voiced District Attorney Arthur Branch. The legal drama began production on its 16th season Friday in New York.

"Fred's production role will not be affected [by his advisory gig]," NBC spokeswoman Cameron Blanchard said. Because of the series' ensemble nature, Thompson typically spends only one production day on the set for each episode (out of eight shooting days total), so the network doesn't expect problems in working around his schedule.

So, TV viewers might witness a surreal blurring of fact and fiction this fall, with newscasts showing Thompson at real-life confirmation hearings, followed in prime time by Thompson's make-believe D.A. masterminding criminal cases.

As Law & Order creator and executive producer Dick Wolf wrote in an e-mail: "With his new presidential assignment, Fred has become the personification of life imitating art imitating life."

But then Thompson has built a career straddling Hollywood and Washington (a representative said last week that the White House was not making Thompson available for interviews). Since bounding to the national stage as co-chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973-74 (he was credited with feeding Sen. Howard Baker the immortal line, "What did the president know, and when did he know it?"), he has wrapped his formidable bearing and booming Tennessee accent around a number of meaty character parts in such films as The Hunt for Red October and In the Line of Fire.

That kind of resume has given Thompson national recognition. During a recent appearance on The Tonight Show, Sen. John McCain of Arizona joked that Thompson should be the Supreme Court nominee.

"If I had his voice, I'd be president of the United States," McCain quipped.

Acting and politics often have overlapped for Thompson. In the late 1970s, he was appointed to investigate allegations that Tennessee Gov. Ray Blanton illegally had sold pardons. Thompson defended the whistle-blower who exposed the corruption, capping his triumph by playing himself in Marie, the 1985 movie about the case.

Thompson then acted in several films and television shows before he ran for the Senate in 1994 to fill the seat formerly held by Al Gore. He beat the front-runner by leasing a red pickup truck and driving it around the state to meet with voters, underscoring his down-home image.

He won a decisive re-election in 1996 and then announced in 2002, shortly after the death of a daughter, that he would not seek another term. Before he left office, he joined the cast of Law & Order as the new district attorney.

As an actor, Thompson specializes in middle-aged officials who exercise great authority with bedrock decency and subtle humor. Friends say he's more or less playing himself. Upon arriving at the White House to await word of whom Bush had chosen for the Supreme Court, Thompson remarked dryly, "It looks like I've got a client."

Observers say that affable image goes a long way toward explaining why Bush tapped Thompson to help guide his nominee through the confirmation process.

Over time, Thompson has gained a reputation as a moderate, partly because of his support for government reform, including campaign-finance legislation, and partly no doubt due to his instant recognition with movie and TV audiences.

Some friends agree that another shot at high office is probably not in the cards for Thompson. Barbara Comstock, a Washington attorney who is friends with Thompson and his wife, said the ex-senator is "pleased to be part of this process and help get a great nominee on the court."

But as much as Thompson enjoys temporarily being back on Capitol Hill, Comstock said, he also relishes his post-Senate life - not only his Law & Order role, but also being the father of a 20-month-old daughter.

"He always talks about how people shouldn't be in government forever," Comstock said. "He's really enjoying his life now."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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