Obituary: Fred Thompson, JD’67, Law and Order

Fred Thompson

Fred Thompson, who went on to an illustrious career as an attorney, counsel for the Watergate Committee, U.S. senator, Republican presidential candidate, and film and television actor after graduating from Vanderbilt Law School in 1967, died of cancer Nov. 1, 2015, in Nashville. He was 73.

“We all feel the loss of Sen. Thompson,” Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos said. “He served his country during a dark, difficult time, and throughout his career he stood up for what he believed in. We are grateful for his service to our state and to the nation, and took great pride in calling him one of our own.”

Reared in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, where he also began his legal career, Thompson served as assistant U.S. attorney in Nashville from 1969 to 1972, and was campaign manager during Howard Baker’s successful run for the U.S. Senate in 1972. Baker then asked Thompson to serve as chief minority counsel for the Watergate Committee, whose investigation ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Representing Tennessee, Thompson went to the U.S. Senate himself in 1994 after a special election to fill the seat vacated by Al Gore, and was re-elected in 1996 with 61 percent of the vote. He chaired the Government Affairs Committee. In 2002 he announced he would not run for re-election, and made a brief run for the presidency in 2007–08.

In 1977, Thompson represented Marie Ragghianti, a former Tennessee Parole Board chair who had been fired for refusing to release felons after they had bribed aides to Gov. Ray Blanton in order to obtain clemency. The resulting trial exposed the governor’s cash-for-clemency scheme, leading to his removal from office and Ragghianti’s reinstatement. A 1983 book about the case, Marie, became a film two years later, and its director asked Thompson to play himself.

That initial role launched a long and successful acting career, as Thompson went on to appear in 40 films, including The Hunt for Red October, Days of Thunder, Die Hard 2, Cape Fear, In the Line of Fire and Secretariat. From 2002 to 2005, he portrayed district attorney Arthur Branch on NBC’s long-running Law & Order franchise.

Thompson maintained his connections with Vanderbilt throughout his career, serving as Vanderbilt Bar Association president in 1971–72 and participating in panel discussions and seminars in the 1980s. He was named Vanderbilt Law School’s Distinguished Alumnus in 2001. He is survived by his wife, Jeri; four children; a brother and several grandchildren.