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My In-Person Encounters with 2011's Kennedy Center Honorees -- 60 Percent of Them, Anyway
December 27, 2011  | By David Bianculli

The annual CBS telecast of the Kennedy Center Honors, this year's edition of which is broadcast tonight (Tuesday) at 9 ET, is something I always recommend, and never miss. It's great artists saluting other great artists, and it's the truest example of a true variety show that exists on TV today. The honorees for 2011, for example, are Meryl Streep, Neil Diamond, Sonny Rollins, Barbara Cook and Yo-Yo Ma.

And this year, by coincidence, I can claim to have seen three of them in person -- watching one perform on Broadway, having a private conversation with another, and being musically serenaded by a third... as I ate breakfast...


The least intimate encounter of the three was with Barbara Cook, whom I've never met. I did, however, see and hear her -- several times -- during her co-starring run in 2010's Roundabout Theatre Company production of Sondheim on Sondheim.

She was the main reason I kept buying more pairs of tickets and taking other people to see the show. Amazing singer, with an unerring, commanding presence on the stage. When she sang "Send in the Clowns," the ovation she received, each time, was as loud and warm as it was emotional and earned.

The most intimate encounter of the three was with Meryl Streep, whom I met as part of an NBC press tour for its then-imminent April 1978 Holocaust miniseries. Streep was one of the supporting actors in that miniseries, and would win an Emmy for her role. Later that year, she also would achieve her first taste of movie stardom, thanks to an acclaimed supporting role in The Deer Hunter, which starred Robert De Niro -- who is one of the people saluting Streep on tonight's CBS special.

Back in 1978, though, Streep was enough of an unknown to sit at a small circular table and talk at length with a young TV critic from a small paper -- that would be me, then writing for The Fort Lauderdale News -- about filming the miniseries, and even about her private life, which, at the time, was quite tragic.


She had been engaged to John Cazale, who already had completed the filming of his role in The Deer Hunter, because his scenes were photographed out of sequence at the start of production because he had a terminal illness. The immensely talented Cazale died of bone cancer in March 1978 -- one month before the TV premiere of Holocaust.

Streep talked of the press event as being a necessary, even welcome distraction, and talked of learning so much from Cazale, both personally and professionally. (In his short but astounding movie career, he appeared in only five movies, but every one of them was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar -- something I don't think any other actor or actress can claim. His movie roles: Fredo in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, Stan in The Conversation, Sal in Dog Day Afternoon, and Stanley in The Deer Hunter.)

I never forgot how quietly, yet how honestly, she discussed such emotionally raw events. I had been singularly impressed by her work in the miniseries, which was why I sought her out that night for a one-on-one interview -- but after talking to her, I was even more so.


Finally, there's Yo-Yo Ma, who was brought to one PBS press tour in support to a TV series he was doing in 1997, tied to his Yo-Yo Ma Inspired by Bach: The Cello Suites recordings.

The famous cellist (seen at the top of this column in a 2000 holiday episode of NBC's The West Wing) was booked for a breakfast press conference - which meant, on that morning's packed PBS schedule, that the press conference would begin at 8, with breakfast afterward. With a late evening the night before, not too many TV critics made the early call to duty. But those 15 or so who did, including myself, were treated to a superb, surreal experience.

Yo-Yo Ma got up to the microphone as scheduled -- but said that, in hopes that more people would show up as stragglers, he'd prefer to hold the press conference after breakfast, rather than before. And to reward those of us who had shown up on time, he said it would be his pleasure to play for us as we ate.

So he picked up his cello and played, filling the room with gorgeous music that seemed even more ethereal for being performed for so few of us. None of us had the desire, much less the nerve, to lift our forks -- until Yo-Yo Ma stopped at one point to encourage us to, saying if we didn't, it would defeat the purpose and throw off the day's PBS schedule.

So on that one morning in my career as TV critic, I listened and watched as Yo-Yo Ma, seated on stage about 10 feet from me, played Bach as I chewed my bacon and eggs, as quietly as I possibly could.




Eileen said:

Love your commentary. Thanks for sharing those intimate moments with us. These are truly three of the greats, proving true talent can be measured in professional longevity. No scandals, no crazy, just wonderfully realized talent.

I really appreciated your mention of Meryl Streep's groundbreaking performance in Holocaust. If I recall, the roster of performers read like a Who's Who. Didn't James Woods play her husband? That was a time when tv movies rivaled anything Hollywood was putting in the theaters (same could actually be said for today). How I miss those days, and the wonderful weekly movies and mini-series you could look forward to on a regular basis. I guess chasing $$ just became more important to the studios.

Who didn't love John Cazale? You have to wonder where his career would be now, had he not passed at such a young age. I'm betting right up there with Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino; a star whose light burned out far too early. There's a documentary around about Cazale aptly titled "I Knew It Was You, Fredo", and after much cajoling and an assist from John Cazale's brother, Meryl Streep became a willing participant. I'll have to track it down on Netflix; he's a favorite of my film grad son.

The Kennedy Center Honors are what I call a real reality show.

[You're right on all counts, Eileen. It's a wonderful documentary, and yes, James Woods played Meryl Streep's husband in Holocaust. I'm impressed -- by you, as well as both those performances. - DB]

Comment posted on December 27, 2011 12:04 PM
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