The family of Fred Thompson has announced that the actor and Republican who represented Tennessee in the U.S. Senate from 1994 to 2003 has died following a recurrence of lymphoma, the Associated Press reports. He was 73.

Early in his professional life, Thompson, born in Alabama and raised in Tennessee, was a lawyer, working as an assistant U.S. attorney and in the late ’60s and early ’70s before being appointed minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973, where he acquired a national reputation for being tough and fair-minded.

Later, however, during Thompson’s brief bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2007, the AP reported that Thompson had leaked information to the Nixon White House and accepted coaching from Nixon’s lawyer:

At a hearing on July 16, Thompson asked former White House aide Alexander Butterfield: “Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?”

Butterfield’s confirmation of the recordings set off a cascade of events that led to Nixon’s resignation 13 months later.

The question made Thompson instantly famous. His political Web site...prominently notes: “Friends in Tennessee still recall seeing the boy they’d grown up with on TV, sitting at the Senate hearing-room dais. He gained national attention for leading the line of inquiry that revealed the audio-taping system in the White House Oval Office.”

What rarely is mentioned is that Thompson knew the answer to the question before he asked it. Investigators for the committee had gotten the information out of Butterfield during hours of behind-the-scenes questioning three days earlier, on July 13.

Thompson went pro as an actor in the ’80s. He played a senator in the 1993 film Born Yesterday and was elected the next year. The New York Times wrote:

His political opponents say it was just one more role for the man who has acted in 18 feature films in 10 years. Mr. Thompson, a huge 6-foot-6 Republican with a drawl that rumbles like an approaching storm, swears he is playing only himself.

Either way, it worked.

He left office in 2003 and joined the cast of Law & Order, playing the Manhattan District Attorney.

After his failed 2008 presidential bid, Thompson started shilling for a totally risk-free, government-backed reverse mortgage company that was sued by the Illinois attorney general in 2010: “These companies used extremely misleading language in their advertising, sometimes even disguising their loans as government benefits that borrowers don’t have to repay.”

“Fred was the same man on the floor of the Senate, the movie studio or the town square of Lawrenceburg, his home,” his family said.

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