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Former Sen. Fred Thompson, coming soon to a film festival near you?

April 17, 2010 |  7:00 am

Fred Thompson hasn't been seen on a film screen since his turn as himself in Albert Brooks' "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World" back in 2005  -- more than three years before his ill-fated run for president.

But if you're a film fan, you could soon be seeing nearly as much of Thompson as you did back in his Arthur Branch days on "Law & Order."

We caught up with Thompson for a print story we just completed about Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has everyone in and out of the entertainment business offering suggestions about what his next Hollywood move should be. (Perhaps the best advice: Do a quick stint on "Dancing With the Stars.") Thompson offers his own thoughts, saying Schwarzenegger's time in the capital won't affect what kind of roles he'll be offered. "I think it will just give him some more stories to tell on the set," Thompson says.

Of course, the former senator offers an intriguing case in his own right. This is someone who went from lawyering to acting to the Senate, then back to acting, then to the presidential stump, before finally returning to acting.

Now he's kicking the film and television activity into a higher gear. He plays Hank Williams Jr.'s manager in a pilot for "Designing Women" creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomas. He co-stars as Bull Hancock, the legendary proprietor of horseracing's Claiborne Farm, in Disney's upcoming "Secretariat." And he takes on a meaty lead part as William Jennings Bryan, the former presidential candidate and anti-Darwinism lawyer in "Alleged," an independent film about the Scopes monkey trial that could soon be hitting the festival circuit. (Brian Dennehy plays Clarence Darrow).

Thompson says he didn't quite plan to return to the screen. In fact he's keeping busy in plenty of other ways: He has a book coming out next month, about growing up in small-town Tennessee, and also spends several hours on the air on his Westwood One radio show.

But there's something about acting that lured him back. He says in some ways he even prefers it over politics, what with the ability to go home at the end of the day and turn it all off. Thompson even gives a historically-themed (and stump-ready) explanation for his transition  "Our founding fathers set a good example. They put time and effort into their country, but even many of those who became president went back to the farm after they left office." (Which we guess means that Hollywood and cattle-rustling have a few things in common. Which is kind of perfect.)

For Thompson, going back to acting, however, hasn't meant he's left his political experience behind. The actor did, after all, get the chance to play Jennings Bryan, a man with a pivotal role in the shaping of this country's culture and history. Did that inflection make it an easier role for Thompson to tackle? "All I know," he deadpans, "is that William Jennings Bryan lost a lot of presidential elections. That comparison hit a little too close to home."

-- Steven Zeitchik

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Photo: Sam Waterston and Fred Thompson on "Law & Order." Credit: NBC Universal

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