NASHVILLE — On a recent night at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theater, a waiter moved from table to table, replenishing glasses of sweet tea and stopping to sing happy birthday to members of the audience.
"Fred never waited any tables," quipped Kenny Dale Thompson as he moved. "How can you be an actor and never have waited tables?"
Both Ken Thompson and his brother, Fred, are actors, but there are differences. Ken is a true artist, the one who starred in high school and college productions, who toured the country in repertory theater, who scrounged tiny movie and TV roles, and who still practices his craft from his home base, a dinner theater on the western outskirts of the Tennessee capital.
Fred Thompson is the lawyer who made it big in Hollywood almost by accident. And he is the one who took center stage in the political world last week by formally entering the Republican race for president.
In an odd turn, Fred's campaign may give his brother a long-sought bit of fame. During interviews before and after his shift at the dinner theater, where he waits tables when he isn't in the night's show, Ken Thompson is at once disbelieving and droll about the prospect.
"I told Fred, 'You know, I'm trying to prepare myself to confront the question that faces every first brother,' " says Ken Thompson. "And that is: How can I make a buck off of this?' "
With that, he laughs. "My mentor is Billy Carter. I'm thinking maybe 'Kenny Beer.' "
Don't bet on it. The reference to President Carter's wayward brother and his widely mocked beer business is a joke. Ken Thompson's relatives and colleagues describe him as a self- effacing professional who inhabits his stage roles and is unlikely to be anything but an asset to his famous sibling.
The brothers live in different states -- Ken outside Nashville, and Fred in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. -- and don't see each other as much as they would like. But they are close. Ken was best man at his brother's 2002 wedding to his second wife, Jeri Kehn Thompson.
Those who know the brothers' work say it provides evidence that life and show business are not always fair. Ken Thompson has devoted his life to his craft, and he has developed dramatic range and a talent for comedy that have eluded his brother. Fred Thompson, whose main profession has been as a lawyer and lobbyist, has risen to prominence by playing many versions of the same authority figure in 21 movies and a variety of TV shows.
"Fred will admit the fact all the time: 'Ken is the actor; I just lucked into it,' " says their cousin Anne Morrow, curator of the Crockett Theater in their hometown of Lawrenceburg, Tenn.
Woodie King Jr., a leading light of New York African American theater, who directed Ken in a production of the drama "A Lesson Before Dying," is unequivocal: "Ken's a wonderful actor. He's much better than his brother."
Ken Thompson was born eight years after Fred, his only sibling. Growing up, the age difference meant they often had little to do with each other, though Fred did put the teenage Ken to work driving a truck with loudspeakers and a banjo player during a 1968 congressional campaign he was managing in Tennessee. (The truck broke down on the highway, and Ken and a buddy were stranded for hours).
The Thompson family was full of showboats, among them their father, Fletch, and their grandmother, Gertie, who ran a diner and grocery store.
"Fred and I were just the two Thompsons who got paid to act," Ken says. "The rest of the family didn't know this kind of life existed back then, or they would have taken to it. They were funny people."
In high school, Ken appeared in plays and became close friends with fellow student Michael Jeter, who would become a Tony- and Emmy-winning actor.
Ken Thompson's performance as the cross-dressing Lord Fancourt Babberley in a high school production of "Charley's Aunt" is still remembered fondly in Lawrenceburg. His older brother, by contrast, didn't appear on stage and instead devoted himself to his girlfriend, whom he married at age 17.
Without that early marriage, says Ken Thompson, "Fred probably would have been a bit more like me -- kicked around longer, wasted more time and had a bit more fun than he should have."
Ken Thompson left Memphis State during his senior year, determined to become an actor. He traveled the country for a time, taking roles wherever he could. By the early 1980s, he had found an artistic home in Nashville among a group of young actors who established the Tennessee Repertory Theatre.
Ken has never tried Hollywood. Family and his love of the city kept him in Nashville. (Divorced once, he remarried in 1993 and now has two children.) He has won a number of small parts in movies and TV, some of them filmed in Tennessee.