The mood was somber and celebrity little more than a means to an end when tonight’s telethon, America: A Tribute to Heroes, was shown on every major network and most of the major cable channels. There was no audience applauding; there was no audience, period, except those at home. There were no introductions; that wasn’t the point, as celebrity speakers made clear throughout the night by telling the stories of the many heroes who lost their lives and saved the lives of others.
To commemorate Sept. 11, a day that could easily be thought of as “the day the music died,” talented and famous faces came together for an evening of songs, stories, and yes, the occasional call for contributions.
The speeches tonight came in all varieties, all impassioned, some tearful, others awkward. A clearly nervous Jim Carrey spoke of Winston Churchill, then told the story of heroes who saved a woman by carrying her down 68 flights of stairs. George Clooney spoke of John Perry, a New York City policeman who’d filed his retirement papers the morning of Sept. 11, but heard of the tragedy and went to help. He never came back, Clooney said.
Cameron Diaz told stories of teachers who saved children at schools near the World Trade Center. Robin Williams talked of a hero who’d saved lives in the 1993 bombing and again this time, only last Tuesday he didn’t make it out himself. Jimmy Smits spoke of police heroes, “cops who are willing to sacrifice their lives in an instant, for people they do not know.” Julia Roberts spoke tearfully of heroes at the Pentagon, and the flying of the flag and the applause that greeted it.
With some of the biggest names in music on the bill, America: A Tribute to Heroes was bound to be good. Bruce Springsteen opened with a candlelit acoustic performance of “My City of Ruins.” Willie Nelson closed the two-hour event with “God Bless America,” backed by an all-star cast of celebs who had been manning the phones all night. Does it get any better than that? Cut the album; give the proceeds to charity. We’re there.
Of course, there were those who pointed out the reason for the event in their songs. Stevie Wonder, who followed The Boss, sang, “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” with the rather pointed line, “Don’t delay, send yours in right away.” Wyclef Jean’s version of “Redemption Song” was peppered with cries of “Brooklyn” and “New York City” and “we’ve got to full-fill that book,” which he sang while pointing to the phone bank.
The much-maligned Mariah Carey sang the only song she could under the circumstances, “Hero,” of which she said, “When I wrote this song,” she said, “it had a lot of meaning for me, and tonight it has even more meaning.” Well said.
U2 appeared from London. Billy Joel tossed off a powerful rendition of “New York State of Mind” with a firefighter’s helmet perched atop the piano. Faith Hill, Enrique Iglasias, Alicia Keys, a bearded and shaggy Tom Petty (with requisite Heartbreakers), a cowboy-hatted Neil Young performed as well. The Dixie Chicks were spot on, and Dave Matthews did an impressive solo acoustic tune.
Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, James Woods, Meg Ryan, Cuba Gooding Jr., Whoopi Goldberg, Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Ben Stiller, Penelope Cruz, Danny DeVito, Halle Berry, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, Benicio Del Toro, Cindy Crawford, Sylvester Stallone, Mark Wahlberg, Michael Keaton, Brad Pitt, Sally Field and other famous faces were seen answering phones at the telethon bank or singing backing vocals on the finale of “God Bless America.”
The stars also took the time to make a point about the evils of racism and hate. Several Arab children spoke of the tragedy and its affect on their lives, then Will Smith appeared on stage, with Muhammad Ali, whom he’ll be portraying in the forthcoming Ali.
“It was hate, not religion that motivated the attacks,” Smith said.
Then Ali spoke. “I’m here because of the troublin’ thing that happened the other day. I’m a Muslim, and I’ve been a Muslim for 20 years…. I think people should know the real truth about Islam. You know me, I’m a boxer…and a man of truth, and I wouldn’t be here defending Islam if it was really like the terrorists made it look…. Islam is peace.”
Later in the show, Lucy Liu said “America’s greatest enemy is hatred itself.”
The telethon was Hollywood’s effort to generate contributions for the September 11th Telethon Fund, which is administered by the United Way and guaranteed to be distributed 100% to the victims of the terrorist attacks on America last week and their families.