WASHINGTON — Fred D. Thompson never took an acting class, performed in summer stock or dreamed of Hollywood fame. But one day a big-name director, preparing a film about political corruption that Thompson had exposed, asked him to play himself in the movie.
A star was born. Thompson, then a lawyer, went on to make 23 movies, countless television programs and millions of dollars.
Now, the accidental actor is being urged to take another role he has not been gunning for, as a growing crowd of conservatives clamors for him to run for the Republican nomination for president.
Other candidates have been refining their game plans for years, but the former senator from Tennessee has glided almost without effort to a strong position in the early polls, even though most voters know him only as a district attorney on television's "Law & Order."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 04, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Fred Thompson: An article in Thursday's Section A profiling actor and former U.S. Sen. Fred D. Thompson, who is being discussed as a potential presidential candidate, should have said filming of this season's "Law & Order" had just ended, not next season's.
If Thompson answers the conservatives' call to enter the race -- and he may offer a clue during an Orange County speech Friday -- a prominent question will come with him: Will voters see a real-life American leader, or someone who only plays one on the screen?
As a candidate, Thompson would bring a compelling personal saga worthy of People magazine: From humble beginnings, he married at 17, did a star turn in the Senate's Watergate hearings, dated splashy younger women after his divorce, won a Senate seat and then left it amid the pain of a daughter's death. Now, at 64, he finds himself the remarried father of an infant and a toddler.
But some associates doubt that Thompson has the driving ambition needed to run for president. Many of the key decisions and opportunities of Thompson's life have been thrust upon him, not passionately made or sought. He became chairman of a Senate committee by a fluke, not by a laborious climb up the seniority ladder. His acting career began spontaneously, and since then he has not chosen roles that expand his range or challenge his skills.
"Fred is generally playing a version of himself," said producer Mace Neufeld, who has worked with Thompson on five films. "I wouldn't cast him as a Frenchman or a villain."
'Doors have opened'
Thompson has acknowledged the large role of happenstance in his successes.
"I have never beaten down a lot of doors in my life, but occasionally doors have opened to me, and I had sense enough to see that they were opening and I would walk through them," Thompson acknowledged recently in a Fox News interview. "And they've always turned out well for me."
Now, the door may be opening again, largely because many conservatives are unhappy with the current choices for president. Thompson, as a senator, posted a solid conservative voting record on abortion, gun control and other litmus-test policies.
And yet, he did not do the hard work of leading the charge on those issues. He backed a campaign finance reform bill that is loathed by conservatives. And unlike Ronald Reagan, the actor-turned-politician Republicans still idolize, Thompson does not have a well-articulated ideology or signature set of ideas.
Indeed, his most obvious qualification for the presidency may be that Thompson -- standing 6 foot 6 with a booming voice and stage presence -- looks and sounds the part. Indeed, he will play the part of a U.S. president in a forthcoming HBO movie.
"He comes straight out of central casting," said Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.). "First impressions matter in politics."
Thompson was not available for an interview, but in a 2006 speech to the American Bakers Assn., he offered a detailed assessment of the many chapters of his life story.
"I did not plan on making any of these moves," he said. "Each decision led to things that were totally unforeseeable."
Thompson, the son of a used-car salesman, grew up in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., a town of about 10,000 that describes itself as a "modern Mayberry." He married his high school girlfriend before turning 18, became a father shortly afterward and had two more children in quick succession. He earned a bachelor's degree from Memphis State University and a law degree from Vanderbilt University. He then returned to Lawrenceburg to practice law.
"For a decade, my greatest desire and highest ambition was to be a big legal fish in the small pond of Lawrenceburg," he said in his speech to the bakers.
After a stint as assistant U.S. attorney in Nashville, he made his most fateful political connection in 1972, meeting Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) and joining his reelection campaign.
Thompson earned enough trust that when Baker became the senior Republican on the Senate committee investigating the Watergate scandal, he asked Thompson to be his top aide.
Thompson helped question witnesses in the televised hearings that riveted the nation -- his first taste of media attention. Most famously, he asked a question of White House aide Alexander Butterfield that prompted the disclosure of President Nixon's Oval Office audiotapes -- a bombshell that set Nixon further on the path toward his political demise.