Fred D. Thompson, a former United States senator, actor and Republican presidential candidate, died on Sunday in Nashville. He was 73.
The cause was a recurrence of lymphoma, his family said in a statement.
Mr. Thompson had an unusual career, moving back and forth between national politics and mass-market entertainment. He left a regular role on the hit NBC drama “Law & Order” to run for president in 2008.
On television and on movie screens, Mr. Thompson was known for playing authoritative characters, but he was sometimes ambivalent in his political aspirations. While he brought gravitas to his on-screen characters, he often struggled on the campaign trail, especially during his unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.
Mr. Thompson compiled a solidly conservative voting record in the Senate, though aides said he showed little enthusiasm for divisive battles over abortion and other issues that motivated the religious right. In a 2007 interview, he told The New York Times that he had always felt that the Senate “was never meant to be the place where I would stay for my entire career.”
“You are either going to do the right thing, or you’re not,” he said. “If you are politically tacking all the time, it makes life too long and too complicated.”
Mr. Thompson, a lawyer, began his life in public service at the age of 30 with a lucky break when his mentor, Senator Howard H. Baker Jr., chose him over more experienced candidates to serve as Republican counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee.
His tough questioning of Alexander Butterfield, a former aide to President Richard M. Nixon, led to the revelation of recording devices in the Oval Office, a turning point in the investigation that ended in the president’s resignation. After the committee concluded its work, Mr. Thompson embarked on a lucrative legal and lobbying career.
He began acting when he was tapped to play himself in the 1985 movie “Marie.” The film, starring Sissy Spacek, was based on the life of Marie Ragghianti, the head of the Tennessee Board of Pardons and Paroles and a whistleblower, who revealed a clemency-selling scandal that brought down the Tennessee governor, Leonard Ray Blanton. Mr. Thompson had been Ms. Ragghianti’s lawyer.
By the time Mr. Baker talked him into running in a 1994 special election to fill the Senate seat from Tennessee vacated by Vice President Al Gore, Mr. Thompson had 18 movie credits, including “No Way Out,” “Days of Thunder” and “In the Line of Fire.”
On Election Day, he swept aside his Democratic opponent, Representative Jim Cooper, with 60 percent of the vote. In 1996, he just as easily won a full six-year term.
Mr. Gore issued a statement Sunday evening in which he praised Mr. Thompson for his dedication to public service.
“At a moment of history’s choosing, Fred’s extraordinary integrity while working with Senator Howard Baker on the Watergate Committee helped our nation find its way,” Mr. Gore said. “I was deeply inspired by his matter-of-fact, no-nonsense moral courage in that crucible. Tennessee and our nation owe a great debt to Fred Thompson.”
Mr. Thompson served eight years in the Senate before leaving his seat in 2002 for a role on “Law & Order.” He played Arthur Branch, a Manhattan district attorney.
Mr. Thompson believed his biggest role was yet to come, however, and in 2007 he asked the producers of “Law & Order” to release him from his contract so he could explore a bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
His supporters hoped that his on-screen charisma and small-town roots could make him into a modern-day Ronald Reagan, another conservative actor turned politician, but it was not to be. Mr. Thompson’s campaign was often languid and failed to attract significant support in the primaries, and he withdrew from the race in January 2008.
“Fred Thompson lived life to the very fullest,” said Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader and one of Mr. Thompson’s Republican colleagues in the Senate. “The first in his family to go to college, Fred would go on to become Watergate lawyer, Senate colleague, presidential candidate, radio personality, and icon of silver and small screen alike, who didn’t just take on criminals as an actor but as a real-life prosecutor, too.”
Mr. Thompson was born on Aug. 19, 1942, in Sheffield, Ala., and grew up in the small town of Lawrenceburg, Tenn., where he was a top athlete and his father sold used cars.
He was 17 when he married Sarah Elizabeth Lindsey in September 1959. They each worked to pay for his education — Mr. Thompson graduated in 1964 from Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis) and received a law degree from Vanderbilt University in 1967 — and to raise three children. After finishing law school, he joined the law firm of his wife’s uncle and in 1969 was appointed an assistant United States attorney in Nashville.
The couple divorced in 1985. A daughter from that marriage, Elizabeth (Betsy) Thompson Panici, died from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs in 2002.
In 2002, Mr. Thompson married Jeri Kehn, a Republican consultant, and they had two children.
In April 2007, Mr. Thompson disclosed that he had been diagnosed three years earlier with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system. He said at the time that the cancer was in remission and that he had no symptoms.
In a statement on Sunday, his family said that growing up in a small town in Tennessee “formed the prism through which he viewed the world and shaped the way he dealt with life” and reinforced for him the values of hard work and a belief in American exceptionalism.
“Fred was the same man on the floor of the Senate, the movie studio, or the town square of Lawrenceburg,” his family said.