Fred Thompson Followed an Extraordinary Road to the Senate

In a chamber of larger-than-life figures, Sen. Fred Thompson still stands out.

The 6-foot-6 Tennessee Republican with the booming baritone is a former Hollywood actor and a real-life lawyer who played a leading role in the Watergate drama. He's known as a ladies' man and once dated country singer Lorrie Morgan.

Thompson's star appeal was apparent when he stumped for Arizona Sen. John McCain during the 2000 presidential campaign. At many stops, voters were more interested in getting Thompson's autograph.

"He's unusual in terms of his voice, in terms of his presence, in terms of his leadership," said Sen. Bill Frist, a fellow Tennessee Republican.

Thompson's path to Washington was anything but ordinary. The son of a car salesman, he was married at 17 and lived with his wife in public housing for a year. They divorced in 1985.

Thompson graduated from Memphis State University in 1964 and earned his law degree from Vanderbilt University in 1967. To pay for school, he worked at a bicycle plant, a post office and a motel.

Thompson went on to become a lawyer in Nashville and volunteered in 1972 to work on the re-election campaign of former Republican Sen. Howard Baker. A year later, Baker selected Thompson to be chief minority counsel on the committee investigating the Watergate scandal.

Afterward, Thompson returned to Tennessee and represented Marie Ragghianti, the head of the Tennessee Parole Board who was fired after exposing a pardon-selling scheme. Ragghianti won reinstatement and her case was made into a movie titled "Marie." The producers asked Thompson to play himself.

It was the first of nearly 20 film roles for Thompson. His credits include "In the Line of Fire" and "The Hunt for Red October."

By the early 1990s, Thompson said he was bored with Hollywood and wanted to go into public service. He won election to the Senate in 1994. Thompson has called the Senate a "remarkable place" but said, like Hollywood, there has been "frustration connected with it."

In addition to backing campaign finance reform, Thompson has spearheaded numerous government reform initiatives, including efforts to hold agencies more accountable for how they spend taxpayer dollars and to speed up the hiring process for federal workers.

"He has a real dedication to a lot of the nuts and bolts government reform issues that others just don't care about," said Norm Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

Frist expects Thompson will remain visible no matter what he does.

"When he leaves the United States Senate, we're going to hear a lot from Fred in lots of different ways," Frist said.