Blues musician Buddy Guy, actor Dustin Hoffman, CBS late-night talk show host David Letterman, ballerina Natalia Makarova and English rock band Led Zeppelin accept their Kennedy Center Honors Wednesday night in a two-hour CBS special.
The 35th annual gala, which was taped on Dec. 2 in Washington, recognizes recipients for their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts in dance, music, theater, opera, film and TV.
President Barack Obama gave out the honors in the White House's East Room, with first lady Michelle Obama and several stars on hand to help pay tribute to this year's recipients.
Caroline Kennedy, who hosted the ceremony for the 10th consecutive year, kicked off the festivities with a quote from poet Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Congratulate yourselves if you have done something strange and extravagant and broken the monotony of a decorous age."
Robert DeNiro then stepped up to help introduce Hoffman, his longtime friend.
"What Dustin did -- for all of us -- was to make it okay to be a character actor and a movie star. He broke the mold of the movie star as the handsome leading man," said DeNiro. "Frankly, I would have preferred to make it as a handsome leading man. Damn you, Dustin Hoffman! ...Dustin is one of the best character actors, best movie stars, best leading men to ever hit the stage or screen."
Scottish comedian/actor Billy Connolly, who appeared in Hoffman's directorial debut, "Quartet," along with Liev Schreiber and his wife, Naomi Watts, continued the tribute.
"Watching Dustin, I saw what acting could be," said Schreiber. "At its best. I'd never seen anyone create characters like that before - so incredibly life-like and detailed, yet still, somehow...something more than real. I had to do that. I had to act like Dustin Hoffman. Not just me."
Judith Jamison, the artistic director for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, honored the Russian-born, award-winning ballerina, Makarova.
"Natalia, your passion and your artistry are loved around the world. On behalf of dancers everywhere, I salute you," Jamison said.
Morgan Freeman took the stage for a special tribute to Guy.
"I first heard the blues sitting on my grandmother's porch in Mississippi -- we called it 'gut bucket music.' You mastered the soul of that gutbucket music and used that as your starting point. You found a new music in it that no one had ever seen before," said Freeman. "You found a new music in it that no one had ever seen before. And without the Internet, without YouTube, without even FM radio, you went viral. You went viral, Buddy Guy."
Guy was honored with a fitting tribute filled with music from the Rob Mathes Band, who performed "Every Day I Have the Blues." Guitarists Jimmie Vaughan and Gary Clark Jr. also hit the stage to perform, as well as Tracy Champman, who sang "Hound Dog" and "I'd Rather Go Blind." Bonnie Raitt, Jeff Beck and jazz/blues artist Beth Hart took on "My Time After a While" and "Sweet Home Chicago."
Letterman, meanwhile, received a special tribute from a "who's who" roster of comedians and actors: Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Ray Romano and Jimmy Kimmel.
"Tonight, we declare it officially: My mom was right, David Letterman is an American treasure, like the Grand Canyon, or the Chicago skyline, or the top two Kardashians," said Fey.
"Watching the 'Late Show with David Letterman' is like being on a roller coaster. It's exhilarating," added Fey's "30 Rock" co-star, Baldwin. "It's also dangerous, scary, and makes you sweat...and that's just the viewers."
Kimmel wasn't shy about his admiration for Letterman: "When I turned 16, I blew out the candles on a 'Late Night with David Letterman' cake; my first car had a L8NITE vanity plate; I drew pictures of Dave on the cover of all of my textbooks; I started a 'Late Night with David Letterman' club in high school...to me, it wasn't just a TV show."
Romano credited Letterman with helping in launch his career, saying, "In any profession, you need someone like Dave to make you want to be better."
And actor Jack Black introduced the tribute to Led Zeppelin, saying, "Led Zeppelin...the greatest rock and roll band of all time...yeah, I said it. Better than the Beatles. Better than the Stones... even better than Tenacious D. That's not opinion... that's fact...Throughout the years, I've explored all kinds of genres and styles...but it's always come back to the Zep."
Throughout the night, Mr. Obama got in on the action, too -- even making a few jokes.
"Of course, these guys also redefined the rock and roll lifestyle. We do not have video of this," he said about Zeppelin. "But there was some hotel rooms trashed and mayhem all around. So it's fitting that we're doing this in a room with windows that are about three inches thick -- and Secret Service all around. So, guys, just settle down."
The musical tribute to Zeppelin got underway with a performance of "Moby Dick" by the Rob Mathes Band. Next, Lenny Kravitz took the stage to perform "Whole Lotta Love," followed by Kid Rock who sang a medley of "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" and "Ramble On." The music continued with the Foo Fighters' version of "Black Dog" and "Rock and Roll." And the night wrapped up with Jason Bonham, the son of late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, performing "Stairway to Heaven," alongside Heart's Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson.
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