Kennedy Center Honors


The Kennedy Center Honors recognizes artists who have made an extraordinary contribution to the arts. This year, actor Robert De Niro, filmmaker Mel Brooks, jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, opera singer Grace Bumbry and singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen are being honored. The Hollywood Reporter's Zorianna Kit sat down with friends and colleagues of the honorees and learned a few things about them that aren't wildly known.

Russell Gloyd on Dave Brubeck
"Being in World War II in Europe was a major shaping influence in Dave's musical life," says Gloyd, Brubeck's manger, producer and conductor. Brubeck was overseas and about to be shipped to the front when a USO troop came through with an upright piano. One asked if any of the soldiers could play and Brubeck raised his hand. "He starts playing," Gloyd recalls. "And the base commander walks by, hears Dave play and says: 'He's not going to the front.' " The commander requested that Brubeck form a band and Brubeck hired two black soldiers, despite it being illegal to have a mixed unit in the U.S. Army. "Dave hired the two men because they were the best musicians," Gloyd says. "He understood the value of a person, and not his skin."

Charles Wadsworth on Grace Bumbry
Pianist Wadsworth remembers when he and Bumbry were asked to perform at the White House for President Kennedy and his wife Jackie on Feb. 20, 1962. The concert took place the East Room. The front row was close enough to the stage that the first couple was clearly visible to the performers. When Bumbry sang a French love poem, "L'Invitation au Voyage," "The beauty of Grace's voice just produced an incredible mood," Wadsworth recalls. Playing the piano that night, "We watched Mrs. Kennedy whispering to the president the translation of the poem. She was doing it very intimately and it was such a private moment, it was obviously very special between them."

Joe Pesci on Robert De Niro
On the "GoodFellas" set, when Pesci's character had to stab actor Frank Vincent in the trunk of a car, "I attacked Frank with the knife viciously," Pesci recalls. "After the first take, Bob kept staring at me. I said: 'How was it? Was I OK?' Bob said: 'Yeah, it's fine,' but he kept staring like he wanted to tell me something." Pesci kept pressing. "He said, 'Well, Joe, your emotions are great, but I don't see how you can get that knife in and out of the chest area that fast because of the bones and the tendons all around it. It's such a big butcher knife, it seems you'd have to force it in and force it out.' That's Bob," says Pesci, who was De Niro's best man at his wedding. "He really wants to help. He notices everything and doesn't let anything go by."

Jack Ponti on Bruce Springsteen
Ponti, now CEO of MRV Music, remembers that the last sentence of the obituary about a man who died on 9/11 mentioned that he was the world's biggest Springsteen fan. "So Bruce went to that widow's house, knocked on the door and said: 'Can I come in? I'd like to get to know your husband as well as he knew me,' " Ponti says. "He spent time with that family." Springsteen did the same "when my mom was very sick in the hospital. Bruce would visit her, sit on her bed and try to make her eat. Her last couple of weeks alive were brightened up by Bruce appearing. (There is no one in the business) more real, humble, caring and honest than Bruce. Bruce doesn't believe he's a rock star, but that he's just a guy who plays in a band -- and that's his job, no different than a plumber or an electrician."

Gene Wilder on Mel Brooks
Before Wilder starred in filmmaker Brooks' directorial debut, "The Producers," they worked on a Frito-Lay potato chips television commercial. "I was playing a chauffeur to two actors sitting the back," Wilder recalls. "Instead of saying 'Sandwich, sir?' Mel wanted me to say, 'Sangwich, sir?' " I think that was the only thing I had to say." They also talked about making a satire of "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde." "We watched the (1931 version) with Fredric March," Wilder says. "I already knew the Spencer Tracy one really well and there was a silent version, too. I was so moved by Spencer Tracy's, I didn't think it was funny at all and thought, 'How in the world are we going to satirize this?' " They never did.