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Cultural icons climb stairway to kudos

Kennedy Center Honors 2012

For 35 years, the Kennedy Center has been bestowing on cultural titans America’s most prestigious performing-arts award, the Kennedy Center Honors.

This year that company expands to include a protean actor, Dustin Hoffman; a master bluesman, Buddy Guy; a groundbreaking television personality, David Letterman; a prima ballerina, Natalia Makarova; and a seminal rock band, Led Zeppelin, whose surviving members consist of bassist-keyboardist John Paul Jones, guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant.

A few of the honorees’ colleagues spoke to Variety about what contributions these artists have made other the years.

“Dustin Hoffman is a actor with immense psychic energy and impressive wit to match,” says Robert Redford, a Kennedy Center laureate from 2005. “I consider our relationship on ‘All the President’s Men’ to be one of the highlights of my career. He is deeply deserving of this honor.”

Continuing to laud his fellow thesp, Redford adds, “He’s an interior actor and a witty one — a very special guy. Based on the roles he’s played over time, you can see that he’s a real actor.”

The multiple Grammy-winning blues guitarist Robert Cray praised his colleague Buddy Guy’s unique style and personality. “He’s a master of the blues form, and he steps out of bounds. Outside of B.B. King — who has already received his Kennedy Center Honors — he’s the most deserving of this honor.”

In the 1980s, Cray toured with Guy and the great harmonica player Junior Wells, an experience he recalls as “heaven.” Cray notes both Guy’s connection to blues tradition, citing his association with Muddy Waters, and his influence on younger guitarists, including Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix and himself. And he remarks on a less-cited aspect of Guy’s career. “Nobody even mentions his singing and he’s one of the best blues singers walking the planet.”

David Letterman joins the ranks of just six other honorees to be lauded primarily for their contributions to television. (The first was Letterman’s idol, Johnny Carson, in 1993.) Craig Ferguson, who owes Letterman quite a debt for his own latenight career, calls him “a seminal broadcasting figure,” and draws parallels to Carson.

“He’s as important as Johnny was,” Ferguson says. “Johnny didn’t create the latenight talkshow, but he was the Tiger Woods of it. Dave identified the personality that’s become the touchstone to all that followed — from Jon Stewart to myself to anyone else who’s doing it. Everyone wants to be as cool as Dave.”

Lauding Letterman’s “identifiable humanity,” Ferguson positions Letterman as a game-changing figure. “He’s an icon in a business and art form that has changed beyond all recognition,” he says. “Dave is a masterpiece of what television has become. And he deserves this honor because of his bravery and integrity as a broadcaster, and because he’s more interesting than anyone else who does it.”

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