'Law & Order' Executive Producers Remember Fred Thompson: "Audience Adored" Him

Thompson, who starred on the legal drama for five seasons, died Sunday at the age of 73.
NBC/Photofest

Law & Order executive producers are paying tribute to the show's late star Fred Thompson, who passed away Sunday at the age of 73.

“Fred was one of the only people that I’ve met who was truly a renaissance man," creator Dick Wolf said in a statement. "Prosecutor, politician, actor, raconteur — no matter what he did, he did it incredibly well. And he was simply a great guy. He will be missed by all those whose lives he touched.”

After spending decades in politics, Thompson joined Law & Order in 2002 several months after he announced he not would not seek reelection for the Senate. As New York District Attorney Arthur Branch, Thompson's character was seen as a more conservative voice on the show and a direct reaction to the events of 9/11 one year earlier.

Longtime Law & Order executive producer William N. Fordes, who worked on the show for all 20-seasons, recalled to THR the uncertainty behind the scenes of adding Thompson's character:

When Fred was initially considered for the role of chief Manhattan prosecutor on the show, I knew he was a former prosecutor in real life, an experience we shared in common. But where Fred had worked for the Feds, I had been with the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, the actual setting for Law & Order, and was very protective of the verisimilitude of the show. I was immediately skeptical that we could sell him as the DA of the premiere NYC prosecutor's office, and made that skepticism known to [creator] Dick [Wolf]. I was overruled. Then, when Fred arrived and I got an in-person listen to his rich, languorous drawl, I again voiced a fierce objection to the notion of this southern boy rising to the heights of the NYC criminal justice system, controlled as it was by the liberal Dems of the city.

Fred, always the unflappable gentleman and ultimate professional, did not take umbrage to my protestations, instead suggesting that we portray his character as the quintessential southern carpetbagger who'd come up from Dixie because he was tired of being a big fish in a little pond. Dick went for the concept and we wrote him as an outsider who'd pushed his way to the top.

In the end, the audience adored Fred, and he brought to the character and the show a non-New Yorker sensibility that provided us writers with another dimension and outlook that had not been available before Fred's arrival. In addition, Fred's personal politics were far more conservative than those of any real Manhattan DA, which gave us even more to work with, and made for some lively debates on and off the set. 

Thompson would star on the flagship series for five seasons, with the occasional appearances on spinoffs SVU and Criminal Intent, as well as Wolf's short-lived Conviction. In 2005, Thompson became one of the few actors in history to concurrently play the same character on two different shows when he joined the ensemble of Law & Order: Trial By Jury.

Former Law & Order showrunner Michael S. Chernuchin, who was on board for Thompson's first two seasons, shared one of his fondest memories with THR:

So my wife and I waited anxiously for a waiter to notice us at our table in the restaurant in the lobby of the Kahala in Oahu. We waited. And waited. It was 2002 and I lacked the patience that comes with years. I was about to blow but Janis kept reminding me, “This is Hawaii -- time (and everything else) moves slower.” Yes, that might be true, but I was forced to quote the Bard (or a bard) that, “a vacation doesn’t begin until that first sip of scotch.” I wanted this getaway to get going already.

Just as I was about to publicly register my displeasure, the room broke out in thundering applause. I turned and saw the other diners literally standing and clapping. I figured someone must have actually been served. But Janis nudged me and pointed toward the door. A tall, broad-chested man with a beautiful woman at his side were being led to their table. The tall man smiled – a big ‘everything’s great smile’ – and waved to the still standing diners. He clearly enjoyed the recognition but at the same time seemed embarrassed to have disrupted so many dinners. The tall, smiling man was Senator Fred Thompson. The beautiful woman was his wife Jeri.

As it happens, I had met Fred two weeks earlier at the read-through for the first script of Law & Order’s 13th season. We had hired him to play DA Arthur Branch on reputation alone. And his rep proved to be accurate. He was polite, warm, friendly and damn smart. But now, when he saw me, he gripped my hand like we were long-time friends. He and Jeri were happy to join us for dinner. There was no awkward small talk. Old friends don’t bother with that. We yakked about everything from Henry V to Bear Bryant. Give Fred a subject, he spoke fluently about it. Our serendipitous dinner lasted well into the night. Time with Fred couldn’t move slow enough. And, when Fred’s at your table, there was always a waiter at the ready.

Some people will remember Fred as a brilliant attorney and Senator. Others as a gifted actor. But Janis and I will always think of him as an old friend.

Thompson left Law & Order in 2007 in order to run for president, but went to appear in other shows including The Good Wife, Life on Mars and, most recently, Allegiance.

In the days since his passing, Thompson has also been remembered by his former co-stars Elisabeth Rohm and Alana De La Garza on Twitter.

Nov. 3, 10:40 a.m.: Updated with additional tributes

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