Ty Burr
July 09, 1993 AT 04:00 AM EDT

As Tom Cruise learned well in The Firm, the most effective attorneys are, on some level, actors. But the skills that sway a jury can earn a different verdict from movie audiences. Not that this fact has stopped some famous lawyers from trying to make the jump from courtroom to screen. Here we separate those who acquitted themselves well in the movies from those who should have stuck to their briefs. *Fred Dalton Thompson in Marie (1985) Not only did this Tennessee attorney successfully defend government whistle-blower Marie Ragghianti in 1977, he played himself in the Sissy Spacek movie with enough sly-fox charm to establish an acting career (The Hunt for Red October, Cape Fear, Die Hard 2).

*Jim Garrison in JFK (1991) In a winking bit of stunt casting, the late conspiracy-theory champion (portrayed in the film by Kevin Costner) walks through an awkward cameo as Earl Warren, the Supreme Court Justice who oversaw the assassination report that New Orleans DA Garrison assailed as a lie.

*John F. Kennedy Jr. in A Matter of Degrees (1990) Two of the writers of this raucous twentysomething comedy went to Brown, which may explain why fellow alumnus (and current New York City assistant district attorney) John-John shows up at a party scene drunkenly trying to soothe a peeved date.

*William Kunstler in Malcolm X (1992) He couldn’t save the Chicago Seven from prison, and he can’t save his scene as the judge who monotonously sentences Malcolm (Denzel Washington) to a jailhouse stretch.

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