Presidential Candidate Fred Thompson Takes the Stage — and the Stand — in A Time to Kill

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02 Nov 2013

Fred Dalton Thompson
Fred Dalton Thompson

Former Presidential candidate Fred Dalton Thompson talks with Playbill.com about making his Broadway debut as Judge Noose in the legal thriller A Time to Kill.

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Broadway has seen its share of Presidential portrayals. Lincoln, Truman, FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, Nixon have all graced the stage — as characters, of course. No actual Presidents have appeared in a Broadway play; not even a Presidential candidate. Until now.

Fred Dalton Thompson, who ran for President in 2008, plays a judge in Rupert Holmes' stage adaptation of John Grisham's legal thriller A Time to Kill. Thompson is far from shy about the intriguing asterisk that accompanies his stage debut. In fact, he amended the information, with a hearty laugh, pointing out that he is also probably the only former Senator to have acted on Broadway.

"These things have kind of presented themselves along the way," he said of his variegated career, which has for 30 years ricocheted regularly between politics and acting. "Doors opened and I walked through them."

The door that led to A Time to Kill began when his agent called him and told him of the project, the first stage version of any of Grisham's many bestsellers. He met with the producers, director and writer and, after some consideration over logistics, accepted the part. "I have a family, and we're in Virginia right now," he explained. "We were actually talking seriously about moving back to Nashville, which is my home, and that move would have to be put on hold." In the end, it was the Amtrak schedule between D.C. and NYC that made his acceptance possible.

As a former small-town lawyer from the South, nobody had to explain to Thompson the plot of A Time to Kill — whose protagonist is a small-town lawyer from the South.

Fred Dalton Thompson and John Douglas Thompson in A Time to Kill.
Photo by Carol Rosegg
"My hometown is about the same size as the fictional town in A Time to Kill. In fact, it's just a few hours from where I grew up. The lawyers, the judges, meeting at the local barbershop and barbecues — I know all these characters. And Grisham writes so well about them."

Thompson, who was born in Alabama and grew up in Tennessee, began his career as a lawyer and still thinks of himself in those terms. "That is the only thing, since I was 17 years old, that I set my sights on. And it still is to a certain extent. I wanted to be be Clarence Darrow, and make grown men cry and say 'Hallaluhah' in the courtroom."

It was a court case that introduced him to acting. In 1977, Thompson represented Marie Magghianti, a former Tennessee Parole Board chair who was dismissed for not cooperating with a a cash-for-clemency scheme in which prisoners bribed their way out of jail. When director Roger Donaldson decided to make a film out of "Marie," Peter Maas' book about about the trial, he asked Thompson to play himself. Since then, he has taken on dozens of roles in both films ("No Way Out," "Die Hard 2") and television (as D.A. Arthur Branch in "Law & Order"). He took a long break from acting while serving as Senator from Tennessee from 1994 to 2003. Thompson is happy to have finally made it to the theatre.

"I always considered the stage the real actor's work" he said. "All the film actors I've met have said it's their first love. I can see why. That's where the human predicament has been explored for hundreds of years."