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.
Freddie's Early Years
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.
On the Road to Washington
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.
"People forget that it was an investigation into all the presidential activities of that year. There were some other presidential candidates whose people had trouble," Thompson said. "It was small stuff compared to Nixon, because he was the president, for one thing. But it was a broader inquiry, and the Democratic staff on the committee did nothing with regard to that other part of the investigation that was supposed to be carrying on. So we carried the ball on that part," Thompson said.
Still, it was the inquiry into Nixon that would make Thompson famous. As part of the Watergate hearings, he asked Nixon's aide, Alexander Butterfield, "Are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?" When Butterfield confirmed the existence of the recording devices in the president's office, the nation gasped.
Thompson's 15 minutes of fame would not end with the Watergate hearings. He returned to Tennessee, where he took on the case of Marie Ragghianti, a member of the Tennessee Board of Pardons, who refused to go along with a series of bribes that would release convicted felons. The case gained attention and eventually became a movie, with Thompson playing himself.
More roles followed. He played a CIA director in 1987's "No Way Out," a Navy Admiral in 1990's "The Hunt for Red October" and, of course, a district attorney on "Law & Order." But it was his role in "Racing Stripes," a children's movie about a zebra that wants to one day be a race horse that still sticks in his mind.
"I played the voice of the mean horse," he said, "and I don't want my kids to see that any sooner than necessary."
Thompson decided to return to politics after Al Gore gave up a Senate seat to run for vice president. He ran as an everyman, driving around Tennessee in a red Chevrolet pickup truck. He served two terms in the U.S. Senate.
"I put term limits on myself," Thompson said. "I didn't want a career in politics, but I thought giving it your best and doing what you thought was right would free you up. And if you got sent home a little early that … would be OK, because that's where you were going anyway."
Still, the political career continues. After continuing to make movies and television shows, he said he set his sights on the White House earlier this year.