EULOGY FOR A CHARACTER ACTOR
I always called him Trudeau, because these are the things that happen when Die Hard 2 comes out when you're eleven and his particular brand of authoritative competence imprints on you as the embodiment of that particular concept. Fred Thompson was many things in life—minor Watergate figure, politician, lobbyist—but his successful run as a character actor in popular thrillers was my first association with him, and I think he did what he did better than nearly anyone else.
One mark of a successful character actor is to define a “type” in your own image. I submit that there was, for a considerable length of time, a “Fred Thompson type” in the popular cinema, and while it's a very specific thing—roughly “mid-level DC functionary” of a certain age and Southernness—there was a time when it was unthinkable to cast anyone other than Fred Thompson as that guy.
Four roles of his (among many others; please, for the love of God, do not tell me I “forgot” about one) have stuck with me for many years. The first, both in terms of its mention above and it being the one that on its own would have made him an indelible figure to me, was as the air-traffic controller Trudeau. He's introduced in the middle of what most people would consider a rough day at the office: it's Christmas Eve and snowing with a Renny Harlin-esque lack of subtlety, and as if that's not enough William Sadler and a ferociously unpleasant retinue take the entire fucking airport hostage. Some characters would resort to bluster, or decompensate into a frazzled mess, but not Trudeau. The whole mess clearly affects him, but he never allows it to interfere with both the proper execution of his job nor his responsibility to project strength as a leader of men. In the wrong hands that kind of thing can come across as insufferable, but one of Thompson's great strengths as an actor was his ability to inherently project that kind of authority, that which when aspirational is always an inch out of reach. Trudeau's calm, more than John McClane running around cursing and killing people, is the bedrock of assurance that justice will, in the end, prevail.
In a smaller role as the CIA director in No Way Out, Thompson was responsible for what I've always maintained is one of the more layered line readings in cinema. The bulk of the movie involves the fallout resulting from Secretary of Defense Gene Hackman accidentally killing mistress Sean Young for having excessively satisfying sex with Naval officer Kevin Costner, which leads to a discussion between Fred Thompson and his subordinate who's been liaising (platonically) with Costner, where they're trying to figure out who killed Sean Young. The subordinate suggests Will Patton, Gene Hackman's creepy right hand man. Thompson dismisses this: “[H]e's homosexual.” The subordinate replies, “I'll be damned.” Thompson then gives forth with the reply, “So will he, if you believe the Old Testament.” Now, as a non-heterosexual who is often confronted with said passage of the Old Testament as justification for being denied various basic rights, I find that line on one level to be kind of awful. But I've always marveled at the particular note Thompson strikes with it, which isn't so much a note as a chord: you can take it as meaning “I do believe the Old Testament and think he'll be damned,” or “some people, perhaps you, may believe this, while I as a high-ranking intelligence official naturally keep my own views close to the vest,” or even “some silly motherfuckers think this and I just feel like flashing the old rapier-like wit.” Or even, because life is complicated, some elements of all of these things. The point being, the richness and multivalence with which Thompson imbued what is ultimately a throwaway line in a movie that has little to do with either his character or the conversation is the hallmark of a master.
Thompson's work as an admiral in the symphony of intelligent competence that is The Hunt For Red October is the one crucial elision (for space) in this piece I wrote on the movie, but when he shows up in an admiral's uniform telling Alec Baldwin to cut the bullshit and come up with a useful plan, there is no questioning that of course he's the admiral and of course he provides Alec Baldwin the impetus to figure shit out and of course he can't just tell Alec Baldwin what he should do, because he's got shit to do. This, in a nutshell, is the compleat Fred Thompson character: He has a job. It's important. He doesn't have time for your bullshit.
Which is why I conclude with a minor role of his, but one that elucidates a truth about cinema to me that is at its absolute core. On season two of Wiseguy when they were trying to figure out some new organization that wasn't the Mafia or a multinational diversified vice syndicate presided over by a Malthusian psychopath (you can only go to the first well so many times, but let's keep it real: you can only go to the latter once if you're lucky) for Vinnie Terranova to infiltrate, Fred Thompson was brought in as a charismatic white supremacist. As it transpires, Thompson's character is a used car salesman and con man who latched onto white supremacy as a growth industry, rather than a true believer (this disappoints his right hand man rather severely). I was watching this episode on VHS at a rather alarming hour of the early morning once, in the state of receptiveness to profundity that so often accompanies the hour, and realized, vividly and with the aid of Fred Thompson's magisterial delivery, that the cinema itself is a con, flickering shadows on a screen masquerading as reality.
This may seem a fatalistic and cynical way to end what is meant to be a celebration of a great talent, but the point is that even something as harsh as “fiction is, on a certain level, a lie” sounded both more convincing and palatable when related by unwitting medium Fred Thompson. His acting shaped the way I see life and movies in a fundamental way, and for this I will always hold his artistic work in my heart.