The Kennedy Center Honorees, from left, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and… (Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty…)
WASHINGTON — Dustin Hoffman was praised for his perfectionism as an actor and David Letterman was applauded for "original and crazy" television comedy as they and five other artists were celebrated Sunday at the annual Kennedy Center Honors gala here.
The honorees, seated with President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, were rounded out by Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy, Russian ballerina Natalia Makarova and three British rockers from Led Zeppelin.
The awards show leapt from the grace of the pas de deux to the growl of the blues, punctuated with some raucous laughter in between.
Bonnie Raitt brought the star-studded audience to its feet by belting out "Sweet Home Chicago" in a sultry growl as a tribute to Guy. She was joined by guitarist Jeff Beck, singer-guitarist Tracy Chapman and other performers.
Robert De Niro and Naomi Watts heralded Hoffman, Judith Jamison sang the praises of Makarova, Jack Black lauded Led Zeppelin, and Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, Jimmy Kimmel and Ray Romano saluted — but mostly skewered — Letterman.
Fey joked that Letterman began his career "as a black opera singer in the '50s, just so he could win this award."
Baldwin described Letterman as a homebody who, because of the honor, was forced to travel, wear a tux, put on black socks and sit in a theater box for two hours — "and then we don't let him say anything."
"For 30 years, David Letterman has made late-night TV more fun and clever, more original and crazy, than it would have been without you," he said.
Hoffman has starred in such hits "The Graduate," "Midnight Cowboy," "All the President's Men," "Tootsie" and "Meet the Fockers" and won Oscars for "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Rain Man."
De Niro recalled first meeting the actor at a party in 1968. "I was his waiter. It was an instant connection when he said to me, 'How's the flounder?'" De Niro said.
"Dustin Hoffman is a world-class, spectacular, colossal pain in the ass," De Niro said.
It used to be that actors could read their lines and act a little, De Niro said, but then came Hoffman, who "just had to get everything right."
Calling Hoffman a man who "made it OK to be a character actor and a movie star," De Niro concluded: "You make me proud to be an actor, and I'm proud to be your friend."
Black enthused about the "Zepathon," listening to nine Led Zeppelin albums in a row. All three living members of the band — John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant — won individual honors.
The host of the awards show was Caroline Kennedy, who said Makarova, who defected from the Soviet Union in 1970 and made a new career with the American Ballet Theatre, gave new excitement to the words "prima ballerina."
Saturday night, the honorees were feted at a candlelit soiree at the State Department, where Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was host, former President Bill Clinton a guest and actress Meryl Streep the emcee.
Counting the latest laureates, 185 artists during the last 35 years have received Kennedy honors, given to living artists for an "extraordinary lifetime of contributions to American culture."
The honors were conceived by and produced by George Stevens Jr., who left during Saturday's rehearsals for a quick trip to Los Angeles to collect an honorary Oscar for his contributions to the performing arts. He returned Sunday for the show. Its co-producer is his son, Michael Stevens.
Sunday's show will be telecast on CBS on Dec. 26.