Most Americans know Fred Thompson as a lawyer, recognizing him as the minority counsel to the Watergate Commission or as District Attorney Arthur Branch on the television show "Law & Order." In real life, Thompson was 17 years old when he first imagined himself in a courtroom.
ABC's Charles Gibson spoke with Thompson as part of a new series called "Who Is," which features one interview a week with a presidential candidate from now until December, with the focus on their private lives.
Born Aug.19, 1942, Freddie Dalton Thompson grew up in Lawrenceburg, Tenn. His parents, Fletcher and Ruth Thompson, had to leave school in the eighth grade to work on their parents' farms. Thompson's father ran a used car lot in Lawrenceburg, and for most of his childhood things remained the same.
"[My father] was always home at 6 o'clock. Mom could start putting dinner on the table, knew he'd be walking in," Thompson said. "It was as good as it gets."
Thompson was a troublemaker in school and said he never thought about his future.
"Never occurred to me that I had to be anything," he said. "I was interested in sports and lived one day at a time -- never, never thought about the future. And my grades in high school reflected that."
That all changed when he was 17. Thompson married his high school sweetheart, Sarah Lindsey, and the two had their first child a year later. Lindsey's family was full of achievers. Thompson especially looked up to Sarah's grandfather, William H. Lindsey, who was a lawyer. Thompson decided to follow in William Lindsey's footsteps, so he enrolled in college and then law school.
"He spent time with me talking to me about the law. I knew at 17 I was going to be a lawyer. And I loved school. I loved college, and I loved going to work and coming home and seeing my baby and my wife and having dinner kind of late at night and getting up the next morning," Thompson said.
To pay his tuition, Thompson worked various jobs, including a graveyard shift at a local factory and a day job at the post office. He sold shoes to women and children, and men's clothes.
By the time he was 28, Thompson worked as a country lawyer and co-founded a Young Republicans' club. He became a U.S. attorney, and served as a campaign manager for Howard Baker, a Tennessee Republican running for re-election to the U.S. Senate. Baker asked Thompson to come to the Watergate Commission as a prosecutor.
As a member of the three-person minority counsel, he was part of the Republican Party's representation on the commission, but Thompson did not feel compelled to defend President Nixon.
"You're supposed to participate in the investigation and do the right thing. And that was my prosecutor experience. But you were also supposed to make sure that there was not overreaching and unfairness along with it. Sometimes when all the political forces and all the media and everyone gang up on one side it seems like you can kind of run roughshod over things and people's rights," he said.
Then there was the rest of the duties of the Watergate Commission.