WASHINGTON — A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away … it would be difficult to imagine a lineup of artists quite like this.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announced Wednesday that “Star Wars” creator George Lucas, groundbreaking actresses Rita Moreno and Cicely Tyson, singer Carole King, rock band the Eagles and acclaimed music director Seiji Ozawa will receive this year’s Kennedy Center Honors.
The diverse group includes six honorees this year. In the past, the Kennedy Center has honored five each year. Organizers said they didn’t want to pass up the chance to honor any of these artists with the national award for influencing American culture through the arts.
The Kennedy Center Honors culminates in a gala performance Dec. 6 in Washington, featuring top entertainers. The show will be broadcast Dec. 29 on CBS.
Here’s a look at this year’s honorees:
A self-described storyteller at heart, Lucas, 71, created some of the most successful movie franchises with “Star Wars and “Indiana Jones.” He’s also hailed as a pioneer in developing new digital technology to enhance his films’ visual and sound qualities.
Lucas said the Kennedy Center acknowledgement is a great honor. “The honorees over the history of the awards are huge, and it’s great to be in the same company,” he said.
Shortly after Lucas receives the award this year, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” directed by J.J. Abrams will be released in December. This will be the first “Star Wars” movie made without Lucas’ direction. He sold his film company two years ago to Disney as he prepared to retire.
“I can’t wait to see it. I don’t know anything about it. I’m going to be surprised just like everybody else,” Lucas said. “When I sold the company I just sort of relinquished all control. I just sold it. You know, it’s like your children going off to college. Suddenly you don’t have control over it anymore. It’s just the passage of life.”
Now Lucas is working to share his craft with the public through a new museum of narrative art planned for Chicago. But some in the city have opposed the choice of a waterfront location for the seven-story museum. The filmmaker said he is hopeful construction can begin by next spring.
As an actress and singer on Broadway and in more than 40 feature films, Moreno, 83, has won all four of the biggest prizes in show business — the Oscar, the Tony, two Emmys and a Grammy. When she heard she was receiving the Kennedy Center Honors, Moreno said she immediately thought of her native Puerto Rico and her mother, not speaking any English, who brought her to New York City as a young girl to start a new life.
“You are reminded that no one is completely self-made,” Moreno said. “You could say it’s the American dream come true. … We were on welfare for a while. It’s the immigrant story. It’s also the American dream story. I am just absolutely beside myself with the recognition that I’m getting, I guess, for battling it out and hanging on.”
And she’s not done yet. Moreno just finished a new album in Spanish produced by Emilio Estefan and an independent film called “Remember Me.” Last month she was grand marshal of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade.
“I’ll tell you what. If nothing else happens, I’ve had the best year of my life,” Moreno said.
The renowned actress known for her portrayals of strong black women, Tyson, 90, said she was speechless and breathless when she heard she would be receiving “the highest honor given to a performer.”
Tyson may be best known for her leading role in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” and she was nominated for an Academy Award for “Sounder.” Her performances in “Roots,” ”The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,” ”Fried Green Tomatoes,” ”Diary of a Mad Black Woman” and “The Help” have made an impact as well.
Tyson said she was always selective with what roles she would take — but the Kennedy Center Honor tells her she made the right choices.
“During my career I certainly questioned whether or not I was doing the right thing when I turned down roles,” she said. “Needless to say there were very few roles over the years written for women. I had to wait for it not only to be written for a woman but for a black woman. And then of course the longer I live, I became involved in ageism. So there’s always been that challenge.”
Tyson will return to Broadway in September, co-starring with James Earl Jones in “The Gin Game.” Returning to the stage is “like the beginning of a whole new career again,” she said, laughing.
It’s been nearly 30 years since King, 73, was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame for her broad influence on pop music, defining the sounds of the 1960s and 70s. She wrote her first No. 1 hit “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” at just 17 years old.
Now more than 400 of her compositions have been recorded by more than 1,000 artists. King wrote such songs as “The Loco-Motion,” ”One Fine Day” and “I’m into Something Good” with her former husband Gerry Goffin.
King said it’s amazing to be in such esteemed company for the Kennedy Center Honors.
“I’m humbled and grateful to accept,” she said in a statement. “I’ve been very lucky to be able to do the work I love for so many years. And it’s even more rewarding to know that what I do has touched the lives of so many people.”
Having sold more than 120 million albums worldwide with their Southern California sound, the Eagles have become one of the most influential American rock bands of all time, according to Kennedy Center producers. The band’s “Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975” album is second only to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as the best-selling album of all time.
Glenn Frey and Don Henley co-wrote most of the band’s best-known songs, including “Hotel California.” They began touring as members of Linda Ronstadt’s backing band but then began writing songs for their debut album, “Eagles.” The band members came together from their roots in Detroit, Texas, Kansas and California and stayed together from 1971 to 1980. But they were reunited in 1994 for an MTV special and launched a tour that ran through 1996.
In a joint statement, the band members said they were “deeply grateful” for the honor.
“The members of the Eagles hail from different regions of this great nation, and we feel very fortunate that our music has been embraced by people from all walks of life, all over the world,” they said. “Popular music is one of America’s greatest exports — a bridge that spans geographical and cultural boundaries. We are truly humbled to have been able to be a part of this global connection.”
One of the celebrities of classical music, Ozawa, 79, was music director of the Boston Symphony for 29 years until 2002. He has led orchestras around the world, including in Toronto, San Francisco and Vienna since he began conducting as a teenager in Japan after World War II. Now Ozawa leads Japan’s pre-eminent music and opera festival.
Ozawa said he was honored to join some of the other heroes of classical music conducting who have received the honor — John Williams, Mstislav Rostropovich, Leonard Bernstein.
“Big names. I feel very honored that they are going to give it to me,” he said. “I’m super happy.”
Ozawa started out playing piano, but broke two fingers playing rugby. He thought he would have to give up music, but his piano teacher suggested he could try conducting. Ozawa had no television at home, growing up in poverty, and had never seen an orchestra conductor in his life. Still, he began training at 15 or 16 years old and has devoted his life to conducting music.
“Now I’m thinking I was super lucky,” he said.
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