He's served as a U.S. senator, acted in Hollywood blockbusters, and starred on "Law & Order" — and now Fred Dalton Thompson is ready to conquer Broadway.
The 6-foot-6 Alabama-born dynamo, a straight-talking Republican senator from Tennessee from 1994 to 2003, is appearing in "A Time to Kill," based on John Grisham's best-selling courtroom drama.
It's his first time performing on New York City's famed Great White Way.
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I'm having a ball! Broadway is always at the pinnacle of the business, so it's very nice to get this opportunity at this stage of the game," Thompson, 71, told Newsmax.
"It's exciting courtroom drama. I play the judge, a no-nonsense kind of a tough guy who rules with an iron hand."
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The play concerns a racially-divided Mississippi town where an African-American girl has been attacked, prompting her father to administer his own justice. An ambitious white lawyer signs on to defend him, with Thompson presiding over the trial as Judge Omar Noose.
And while Thompson, a lawyer in real life, is an old hand at portraying judges, prosecutors, and tough military types — he was district attorney Arthur Branch on "Law & Order" and "Law & Order: Trial by Jury" — he had to learn a whole new way of acting as he stepped onstage at New York's Golden Theatre.
"The thing I had to get used to was speaking to the back of the audience, to the back seats," Thompson said.
"For film work, of course, you're not allowed to do that, you're three or four feet away from a person and you talk to him as if you were three or four feet away from him.
"The theater is different. You've got to project and just keep that in mind. And there are no second-takes in the theater."
For a performer, that feeling of walking a tightrope without a net is both exciting and just a tad nerve-racking, he confessed.
"It keeps you on a bit of an edge, but that's usually a good thing. It's all about getting your lines down and getting your act together and in projecting it in a convincing way," he said.
Kind of like being a politician, Thompson admitted.
"You're speaking before a large audience for real … like a political convention. So there are a lot of similarities," he said.
One of Thompson's best-known movies is "The Hunt for Red October" with Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin, based on the best-selling novel by Tom Clancy, who died earlier this week at age 66.
"I was distressed to see that. He was one of a kind, a very unique and very unusual fellow in a lot of different ways," Thompson said.
Thompson launched his movie career in 1985, when director Roger Donaldson asked him to play himself — a lawyer — in "Marie," a true story about a gutsy Tennessee woman battling political corruption.
He got immediate raves. The Los Angeles Herald Examiner called Thompson "the movie's real find" and People magazine gushed that he stood out "like a California redwood."
Two years later, Thompson went on to portray the director of the CIA in the Kevin Costner thriller "No Way Out." Other big films followed, such as "Die Hard 2" with Bruce Willis; "Cape Fear" with Robert De Niro; and "In the Line of Fire" with Clint Eastwood.
Years before his show business career took off, Thompson had launched a successful law career with offices in Tennessee and Washington, defending clients accused in white-collar crimes and in personal injury cases. He also began to dabble in politics.
He was campaign manager for Sen. Howard Baker during Baker's re-election bid in 1972 and served as a minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee. In the 1980s, Thompson also was appointed as Special Counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Special Counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
In 1994, he was elected to fill the unexpired Senate seat of Al Gore, and was re-elected in 1996.
Thompson — who is married to Jeri Kehn, a political media consultant who once worked for the Senate Republican Conference and the Republican National Committee — said working in both politics and film has been immensely rewarding.
And while he now has appeared in more than 50 movies and TV series, there's still one dream project on his wish list.
"It would be real neat to play Bear Bryant, the football coach. That'd be kind of a kick," he said.
While more people know Thompson as an actor than a lawmaker, he isn't afraid to talk about politics, and weighed in on the infighting between Republicans and Democrats that launched the government shutdown.
"Well, I'm not concerned about it in the short run. Everybody's concerned about the tactics now and who's winning, who's losing and all of that," Thompson said.
"What I'm concerned about is the underlying forces that are causing the turmoil and will continue on through the debt limits debate, I'm sure … " he said.
"We're on the road toward being a more debt-ridden and dependent nation. People see that, it concerns them, it comes out in different ways, and it's one of the main reasons for the creation and the activity of the tea party and what you're seeing now."
In the past few weeks, he said, there has been a lot of "foolish" talk and posturing.
"People make mistakes on tactics, people say foolish things and all of that, but that's not the real issue here," Thompson said.
"The real issue is, are we ever going to be able to convince the American people that we have an unsustainable problem on our hands and that we don't want to be Europe, we don't want to be Detroit, and we've got to do some things different … Shutting down the government's parks for a few days is the least of our worries."
"Are we going to do anything to address the fact that 10,000 people a day are retiring and the young people whose wages are being used to support them can't find work? That's the question."
When Thompson gets going on politics, his energy and enthusiasm conjures up a picture of a man who may be ready to throw his hat into the ring once again.
But he quickly dispels that notion.
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"No. No. I have no interest in doing that. I went into politics as a temporary thing on the front end, I put term limits on myself, I left when my time came. So no, there will be no more running for office,'' Thompson said.
He said Ronald Reagan is one of his favorite presidents.
"He was a courageous, charismatic leader who saw the greatness of our nation and drew us toward our strengths, which lie mainly outside of Washington," Thompson said.
"A Time to Kill," adapted for the stage by Rupert Holmes, is directed by Ethan McSweeny and co-stars Sebastian Arcelus, Chike Johnson, Patrick Page, Tonya Pinkins and Tom Skerritt. It's now in previews and opens Oct. 20. Tickets are available at telecharge.com
Thompson said he's thoroughly enjoying his time in New York, but there's no question he's a Southern boy at heart.
"I'm from Tennessee. I was born in Alabama but I went to Tennessee as a baby. Oh, I like the excitement [of New York], the restaurants," he said.
"I don't like the traffic and it's been too hot here so far. But it's like most places. It has advantages and disadvantages. But it's the only place that has Broadway and that's kind of unique and kind of special. And it's fun to be a little part of that for a short period of time."
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