|LOS ANGELES - |
If Fred Thompson is auditioning for the role of a lifetime, he could hardly be any better prepared. For millions, Thompson is simply Arthur Branch, the gruff, hard-nosed district attorney on NBC's "Law & Order." Many others may recognize him from strong, take-charge movie roles including an admiral in "The Hunt for Red October."
As Thompson prepares for a likely run for the presidency - he said Wednesday "it will not be long" until he makes an announcement on the subject - his image has been cultivated as much by Hollywood as by his time as a real-life Republican senator in Washington.
"When Fred, as Arthur Branch, walks into a room, people feel like they should stand up and salute. Fred is the living definition of command presence," Dick Wolf, series creator and executive producer of "Law & Order," told the AP. "If you look back at his previous roles, you can see I'm not the only producer who has felt this way."
Thompson's acting career has long been intertwined with his political one. He was first cast by Hollywood in 1985's "Marie" as himself - an attorney in the true story of a woman who is working at the State Board of Pardons of Tennessee and discovers that the state government is riddled with graft, corruption and even murder.
His next film outing in 1987 saw him cast in his first character role as a CIA director opposite Kevin Costner in "No Way Out," paving the way for two decades of roles as either an attorney, a military officer, a politician and even a president.
"There is a strong sense in which Thompson's popularity as an actor, I think, came in part because he seemed to be able to play the role of what a skillful political leader would seem to have. He appears gruff and strong, a very masculine character, and he's very certain in the way he pronounces his words and uses his language. So I think there is a reinforcing connection," said Tom Hollihan, a professor of media and politics the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication.
Whether such roles were a conscious decision on Thompson's part is another matter.
"Nothing succeeds like success in Hollywood, and if it's worked well once, casting directors and producers tend to go back to the well again. Actors don't get to choose their roles. They only get to accept or turn them down. I think it's less a conscious decision on his part than it is typecasting," said film critic Leonard Maltin of "Entertainment Tonight."
Wolf was interested in Thompson for "Law & Order" in part because of his political credentials.
"I heard Fred was interested in doing television, I called him cold in his office in the Senate, and I'd seen his work for years and was aware of his political credentials, including Watergate. So once he was cast, we basically customized the suit to fit that character," he said.
Wolf said Thompson was involved in shaping the character.
"We discussed Arthur Branch's back story, including whether the Southern accent should be mentioned, and we decided that Arthur's character had migrated to New York about 35 years before, after a successful stint as a prosecutor in Tennessee, and Arthur ended up joining a top litigation firm before joining the DA's office. And the character basically evolved from there," Wolf said.
While many have used acting to launch political careers, including President Reagan and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, few have made the transition from an acting career to a political career and back again.
"This is what is unique about Thompson. Just when he's making a name for himself as an actor, he decides to run for Senate. And then when his term in the Senate is over, he returns to acting and ends up in one of the most visible roles of his career," Maltin said.
It's unclear whether voters nationwide will accept Thompson in a role other than that of an actor.
He's been testing the waters for months on that subject. He said Wednesday in an interview on WRVA-AM in Richmond, Va., "You've got to be realistic and see if you're going to take this on that you have some grass-roots support out there."
Hollihan said the very thing that helps Thompson as an actor could also hurt him.
"The character you play and the character you are cast as has to resonate. That's the case if you're casting somebody for a movie or you're casting somebody for higher office," he said. "People are so aware that contemporary politics involve media. They are going to be looking for that ongoing related persona."
Jonathan Wilcox, who teaches celebrity and politics at USC, says the audience is allowed to marry the ideas of Thompson, the actor, and Thompson, the candidate.
"They know very well this man is not Arthur Branch. But they have seen him portray convincingly qualities they look for in public life. And secondarily, they have no reason to think that he would be any different having been somebody already in public life," said Wilcox, who also worked as a speechwriter for former California Gov. Pete Wilson.
Another question: If Thompson loses, can he pick up where he left off in Hollywood with its here-today-gone-tomorrow star turns?
"No one is going to hold it against him. If Al Gore can have a film career, why can't Fred Thompson?" said film critic and pop culture analyst Robert Wilonsky.
"If you can survive being in 'Iron Eagle III,' 'Curly Sue' and 'Unnecessary Roughness,' you can survive having run for president."