Tom Hanks and Sting joined Lily Tomlin, singer Al Green and ballerina Patricia McBride in being awarded this year's Kennedy Center Honors for influencing American culture through the arts.
Top performers and power players from Hollywood, Broadway and Washington gathered Sunday to salute them in a gala performance. The show hosted by Stephen Colbert will be broadcast Dec. 30 on CBS.
David Letterman led a series of tributes for Hanks, reciting some of the actor's unforgettable lines from his movies:
"Momma always said life is like a box of chocolates."
"There's no crying in baseball!"
"Houston, we have a problem."
Filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who collaborated with Hanks on many projects, said "America's favorite son" has opened a window on the nation with movies that include "Philadelphia," ''A League of Their Own," ''Forrest Gump," ''Apollo 13" and "Saving Private Ryan."
"Tom loves his country," Spielberg said.
Filmmaker George Stevens Jr., who created the Kennedy Center Honors but said this would be his last time producing the show, said Hanks stands apart as "one of the great actors of his generation or any generation."
Before the show, Hanks, 58, joked that a mistake must have been made in the choice for a fifth honoree.
"This is the work I started in 1981, so it all works out OK," he said.
Sting broke out in 1978 with his band The Police with such hits as "Roxanne" and later "Every Breath You Take" before starting his solo career. He has been performing for four decades and has won 16 Grammy Awards.
Many young musicians admire his work and came to sing his tunes in his honor.
Lady Gaga sang "If I Ever Lose My Faith in You," Esperanza Spalding sang "Fragile" and Bruno Mars sang a medley of "So Lonely," ''Roxanne" and "Message in a Bottle."
Bruce Springsteen also sang a tribute to his friend and made a toast at a State Department dinner Saturday, saying the breadth and depth of Sting's talents are intimidating as he crosses from folk music to jazz, classical, pop, rock and reggae.
"Sting makes me feel like a musical Neanderthal. When we get together, we always have the same argument. He insists that there are more than three chords, while I insist that there are not," Springsteen said, drawing laughs. "In an age of musical homogenization, no one has ever sounded or sang like my friend."
On Tuesday, Sting will shift to Broadway, joining the cast of "The Last Ship" in his musical about his hometown.
Sting, 63, told The Associated Press he was bewildered by the honor.
"You know, for an Englishman to receive this reward, it's not unique, but it's rare, and I take that pretty seriously," he said. "To come to this country in 1978 with no prospects at all and then to end up here ... it's quite a journey. So I don't take it for granted."
President Barack Obama saluted the honorees Sunday at the White House before the show. During the East Room reception, Obama invoked John F. Kennedy's appreciation for the role of the arts in the nation, which helped inspire the Kennedy Center's creation as a memorial to the 35th president.
"It's clear that the group on stage with me tonight understands what President Kennedy understood: that our art is a reflection of us not just as people, but as a nation. It binds us together," Obama said. "Songs and dance and film express our triumphs and our faults, our strengths, our tenderness in ways that sometimes words simply cannot do."
Tomlin, 75, made her career in comedy and acting after moving to New York City as a waitress. Soon she would make her TV debut on "The Garry Moore Show" in 1966 and within a few years joined the cast of "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" with her popular characters including Ernestine, the telephone operator.
Tomlin went on to create memorable comedy specials, Broadway shows and movie roles, including "9 to 5" with Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton.
Jane Lynch, Reba McEntire, Fonda and Kate McKinnon celebrated Tomlin and her many characters that make people laugh.
"No one is more loyal," Fonda said. "You get Lily and you have her for life."
Tomlin said she couldn't believe she was receiving the Kennedy Center Honors.
"I've never been privy to the insider's circle," she said, "but here I am."
Leading entertainers, including Usher, Jennifer Hudson and Earth, Wind and Fire sang some of Green's greatest hits, and Whoopi Goldberg lauded Green for his unmistakable sound.
"Al Green can caress a lyric like no one else," Goldberg said.
Green, 68, was born to sharecroppers in Arkansas. He made his name touring the gospel circuits of the South and now is one of the defining voices of Memphis soul. His hits include "Let's Stay Together," ''Take Me to the River" and "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)." His songs have been covered by Annie Lennox, Dave Matthews, Bruce Springsteen and even Obama, who has famously sung a few lines from "Let's Stay Together."
McBride, 72, forged her artistic career in dance. She joined the New York City Ballet at 16 after studying under the great choreographer George Balanchine and quickly became the company's youngest principal dancer at 18. It's a role she would hold for 28 years, performing around the world. She gave her farewell performance in 1989 and was showered with nearly 13,000 roses.
Now, McBride works to pass on Balanchine's legacy as a teacher for young dancers. She and her husband, dancer Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, run the Charlotte Ballet in North Carolina.
Dancers from ballet companies in Boston, New York City and Charlotte performed Sunday in McBride's honor.
Actress Christine Baranski recalled seeing McBride dance years ago. "She was the one," Baranski said, "the one you could not take your eyes off of."
"Brava to our prima American ballerina."