Fred Thompson makes an entertaining “Expert Witness”

Fred Thompson is a famous trial attorney, a former U.S. Senator, a one-time Presidential candidate, and film and television actor.  He is also a terrific storyteller, which made him the ideal charter guest Monday night for Shakespeare Theatre’s new “Expert Witnesses” series in which famous trial attorney Abbe D. Lowell (and Shakespeare Theatre Board of Trustees member) interviews prominent individuals who have bridged the world of law and theatre and the arts. 

Before his appearance, as a “warmup”, he spoke with Tim Treanor about his entry into the world of acting.  Thompson represented  a whistleblower who was fired from her job as chair of the Tennessee Board of Pardons and Paroles in the 1970s.  It was a successful wrongful discharge case that exposed the Governor’s corruption in selling paroles for cash.

The events were later the subject of a book by Peter Maas (of Serpico fame) and a 1985 film titled Marie with Oscar® winner Sissy Spacek playing the title role. In a case of art imitating life, Fred Thompson was chosen to play himself in the movie.  In other casting news, Thompson related that his part was larger than the role of fellow film actor Morgan Freeman, “the last time that has happened” he related with a chuckle.

When he filmed Marie, Thompson never imagined that the role would lead to an acting career.  To him, getting to act in a movie was “totally like a kid sneaking into the circus.”

The director of Marie gave Thompson unusual input in to his role.  He was even allowed to rewrite his closing jury summation as long as he did it in seven minutes before filming started.  Thompson soon learned something about professional boundaries, though, when he suggested a bit of blocking to director Roger Donaldson.  Donaldson replied “Fred, it must be hard acting in and directing your first film.”

Thompson and Donaldson became good friends, and Donaldson invited Thompson to read for a role in the Kevin Costner political thriller No Way Out.  Accordingly to Thompson, Donaldson said “Let’s see if you can play someone other than yourself.”  Thompson played the Director of the CIA in the film.

From that point on, Thompson alternated legal work and acting roles.  When asked how he could do so, Thompson said he didn’t take work that would create calendar conflicts and also observed dryly that he “didn’t have any hobbies.”

Thompson said he never faced any disrespect from fellow actors about the fact that he had no formal acting training.  He speculated that working as a trial lawyer was like acting school in helping him get rid of his inhibitions and help him be believable to juries.  That ability to believe in a client’s cause has helped him bring an “inner realism” to roles that is important to successful acting.

Following Marie and Now Way Out, Thompson landed a succession of acting roles in films such as Fat Man and Little Boy, Days of Thunder, Die Hard 2, and Thompson’s personal favorite, playing an Admiral in The Hunt for Red October.  Thompson explained that he felt he knew the man he was playing and he drew upon the memory of his father in the portrayal, even holding a cigarette the way his father did.  Also, it was a big budget, classic film that was the last major Cold War movie in which the Soviet Union was the bad guy.

The experience of making The Hunt for Red October helped Thompson appreciate common public misapprehensions about film-making.  People kept asking Thompson what it was like to work with the film’s lead Sean Connery.  Thompson had to explain that he never met Connery during the making of The Hunt for Red October because they did not share any scenes.  Thompson did not meet Connery until a party five years later.

A public misapprehension is that many movie stars are selfish prima donnas.  In fact, Thompson found that the bigger the actors, the more professional they were.  He related his experience with Paul Newman during the filming of Fat Man and Little Boy, the story of the creation of the first atomic bombs.

Newman had been sick during the filming.  At one point when he was running lines with Thompson, he apologized for missing a line of dialogue, stating that he was usually “more on my game than this.”  Later, when filming a lengthy scene where Thompson’s Major General was dressing down Newman’s Brigadier General Leslie Groves, the camera was only filming Thompson’s side of the dialogue.  Thompson suggested that there was no reason for Newman to stay since someone else could feed Thompson Newman’s lines from off-camera, but Newman insisted on staying all day to give the lines himself.

Thompson’s acting career was interrupted by his service in the U.S. Senate from 1995 to 2003.  He also ran for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2008.  Unfortunately, his candidacy did not last long, as Thompson ruefully noted in responding to an audience question about who would have been his Vice Presidential partner on the ticket.  “I didn’t get far enough to think about it very much.”

In addition to film acting, Thompson has also worked on television shows.  He is famous for appearing in over a hundred episodes of Law and Order as District Attorney Arthur Branch.  He has also appeared in multiple episodes of Matlock and Wiseguy, a 1980’s TV show in which a first year arc featured Kevin Spacey, who Thompson described as a “fantastic actor.”

Thompson was asked by the audience if he had watched any episodes of the political drama House of Cards, starring Spacey and produced by Netflix.  Thompson replied in the negative because he actually does not watch many films or TV shows, and implying that another factor was that Thompson was turned down for a role on the series.  He was considered for the role of Raymond Tusk, which went to Gerald McRaney.

To date, Thompson has never appeared on stage, the time requirements of theatre acting made it difficult, and it would have to be a real labor of love, he said.  When asked what Shakespearean character he might have liked to play, Thompson named Macbeth because of his empathy and understanding for the man.  He said he could identify with the idea of people telling a man he should be king and his wife agreeing (referring to his Presidential run), to the laughter of the audience.

Thompson has no regrets about his acting career.  He was never offered a role that won an Academy Award.®   He was reluctant to talk about roles that he could have played that he was not offered.  “You hate to say it because you know they made the right choice.”

Thompson did say he liked the types of roles that George C. Scott has played.  He also would have enjoyed playing the lead in a 1984 biopic about legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, a role played by Gary Busey that predated the start of Thompson’s acting career.

Thompson has turned down some roles, joking that “A lot of it is I get tired of doing those nude scenes.”  Seriously, he has rejected some roles because of adult language and “schlockiness,” saying he considers what his great grandchildren might think in 50 years.

One of the most entertaining portion of the interview involved Lowell asking Thompson to reply to a series of questions with the answer “DC” or “Hollywood.”  Portions of the interview included:

  • Town tougher to succeed in?  Hollywood (because most people who come to DC have already succeeded at least somewhat).
  • Town with harder workers?  DC (although Thompson noted that filming on a TV show can, on occasion, run to 2 or 3 in the morning).

Thompson diplomatically ducked some of these questions; e.g.:

  • Town with worse traffic?  Neither is very good.
  • Town with more plastic surgery?  Close call (to audience laughter).
  • Town that’s more honest?  It depends (also earning laughs).

Thompson expounded upon the last answer to state that he does not believe that there is rampant dishonesty in either place.  While there are always bad people to avoid, a lack of honesty has a way of coming back.  Thompson has managed to maintain a positive outlook on the law, acting, and government that is heart-warming and refreshing.

Shakespeare Theatre’s next exploration of Shakespeare and the law will be “The Pen vs. The Law”, this year’s mock trial involving the estate of Coriolanus bringing charges against the media. On May 13, 2013 at Sidney Harman Hall.

Steven McKnight About Steven McKnight

Steven McKnight is a recovering lawyer who now works in a lobbying firm and enjoys the drama of political theatre on both sides of the aisle. He admires authors, actors, athletes, teachers, and chefs, and has dabbled in all of those roles with mixed (and occasionally hilarious) results.



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