Ex-Sen. Fred Thompson, movie star and Watergate counsel, dies

Ex-Sen. Fred Thompson, movie star and Watergate counsel, dies
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Former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), an actor-turned-politician who made his mark in the Senate as an investigator and ran for president, has died.

Thompson, aged 73, died after a recurrence of lymphoma, according to a statement issued by his family and reported by The Tennessean.

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“He enjoyed a hearty laugh, a strong handshake, a good cigar, and a healthy dose of humility. Fred was the same man on the floor of the Senate, the movie studio, or the town square of Lawrenceburg, his home,” the statement read.

Thompson, a successful actor who co-starred with Alec Baldwin in "The Hunt for Red October" and Robert De Niro in "Cape Fear," was first elected to the Senate in 1994 in a special election to serve out the remainder of former Vice President Al Gore’s term.   

He won re-election in 1996 and led the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee during its 1997 investigation into the Democratic National Committee’s soft-money fundraising practices and the influence of Chinese donors on the Clinton White House.

The investigator’s role seemed to come naturally to Thompson, who served as minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973 and 1974.

He returned to acting after retiring from the Senate in 2002, taking the role of District Attorney Arthur Branch on the NBC series "Law & Order."

He suspended his acting career in 2007 to make an ill-fated bid for president. He was considered an early front-runner but didn’t seem to have much of an appetite for putting in grueling hours on the campaign trail and was ridiculed for allegedly wearing Gucci loafers at the Iowa State Fair.

Thompson later disputed the story as “a journalistic fabrication.”

He dropped out after finishing third in South Carolina.   

He was born in Sheffield, Ala., in 1942 and received his law degree from Vanderbilt University in 1967, gaining admittance to the Tennessee bar that year.

"Fred once said that the experiences he had growing up in small-town Tennessee formed the prism through which he viewed the world and shaped the way he dealt with life,” the family statement read. “Fred stood on principle and common sense, and had a deep love for and connection with the people across Tennessee whom he had the privilege to serve in the United States Senate.” 

He managed former Sen. Howard Baker’s (R-Tenn.) reelection campaign in 1972 and later served as counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee.

He played a key role in that probe by discovering President Nixon had used a recording system at the White House, a revelation hastening his downfall.  

Thompson resumed private law work and represented Marie Ragghianti in a lawsuit after she was fired for refusing to release inmates who paid bribes to Tennessee’s Democratic governor at the time, Ray Blanton.

Blanton was never convicted on those charges, but he later served time in a federal prison for mail fraud, conspiracy and extortion after selling liquor licenses.

The Ragghianti case became a book and then a movie in which Thompson played himself, launching his film career.

Thompson also had memorable roles in “Die Hard II,” “Now Way out” and “Days of Thunder.”

“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,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) in a statement Sunday evening. 

This story was updated at 6:59 p.m.