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A chat with politician-turned-actor Fred Thompson

A chat with politician-turned-actor Fred Thompson — The ex-senator who’s taken on everyone from Nixon to Roseanne raises the bar on ”Law & Order”

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Fred Thompson
Fred Thompson: Paul Drinkwater

”Law & Order” doesn’t just rip stories from the headlines anymore — it rips cast members from the news, too: Former senator Fred Thompson started playing the NBC drama’s DA this season. But he’s no first-term thesp. EW asked the lawyer turned actor turned politician turned actor to riff on his résumé.

THE WATERGATE HEARINGS (1973-74) Thompson got his first TV exposure as minority counsel to the Senate investigating committee. ”It’s only been years later that I’ve realized the significance of it. At the time, things were happening so fast, it was more like trying a major case than performing on television.”

MARIE (1985) Thompson made his acting debut as himself, in a docudrama based on his real-life case defending a government whistle-blower (Sissy Spacek). ”To my surprise, they asked if I’d be interested in reading for a part. I went on a lark and learned it was the part of me. It was totally accidental. I’d never [even] been in a high school play.”

NO WAY OUT (1987) As the CIA director, opposite Kevin Costner. ”[”Marie” director] Roger Donaldson called and said, ”Let’s see if you can play anything besides yourself.” I had two or three little scenes. It was a pretty straightforward role — it didn’t require a whole lot of ingenuity.”

ROSEANNE (1988) A one-episode guest shot as the star’s boss at a factory. ”They’ve run that thing to death. People still talk about it. I hardly remember it. Roseanne was nice and easy to work with. That was before she had developed her interesting reputation.”

CAPE FEAR (1991) As Nick Nolte’s legal colleague. ”Just to be in a Martin Scorsese film was a treat. I was like a kid in a candy store. I didn’t expect this when I was going to law school.”

THE U.S. SENATE (1994-2003) As a Republican legislator from Tennessee. ”In politics, you can’t act your way through a campaign, much less a career. It’s too hard, and people see through it.”

LAW & ORDER (2002- ) As Manhattan DA Arthur Branch. ”Frankly, I hadn’t watched it much. When I have a little time, I usually try to catch sports. But it was my wife’s favorite show. [When they offered me the job,] I called her up and said, ‘You’re not going to believe the call I just got.”’