But it was as an actor — especially as Arthur Branch, the gruff, no-nonsense district attorney of Manhattan, from 2002 to 2007, and as Rear Adm. Joshua Painter in the 1990 movie "The Hunt for Red October." When reporters asked him how he was on law and order as a political candidate, he famously liked to answer "I'm amazing."
Thompson — who often acted under the screen name Fred Dalton Thompson — made the most of his slow-talking, aw-shucks Southern demeanor, but in real life, as in politics, the good-old-boy imageconcealed a sharp legal mind.
Thompson was assistant U.S. attorney in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1972 when he became campaign manager for Republican Sen. Howard Baker's re-election.
When the Senate appointed a special committee to investigate alleged crimes by the Nixon administration in the 1973 break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters at Washington's Watergate Hotel, Baker was ranking minority member, and Thompson was hired as Republican counsel.
Thompson was among the first people outside the administration to learn of President Richard M. Nixon's secret Oval Office taping system. It was Thompson who asked Nixon's former deputy assistant, Alexander Butterfield, the question that led to Butterfield's public revelation of the tapes on July 16, 1973.
Thompson was a lobbyist and lawyer for the next decade, until 1983. That's when a book was published about one of his legal clients — Marie Ragghianti, a former chairwoman of the Tennessee Parole Board who was a whistleblower in the scandal that led to the removal of Tennessee's governor from office.
The book was turned into a movie, and Thompson was asked to play himself.