A who's who of A-list actors and musicians--from Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks to U2, Paul Simon and Pearl Jam--converged in New York, Los Angeles and London for America: A Tribute to Heroes, an unprecedented multinetwork telethon that dominated TV screens Friday night.
The two-hour event, which aired on more than three dozen major networks, offered an emotional night of music and tearful stories of heroism from last week's devastating terrorist attacks. The night ended with Willie Nelson leading the celebrities in a campfire-style group sing-along of "America, the Beautiful."
Though early estimates were not released Friday night, organizers expected to make as much as $30 million for the United Way's September 11 Telethon Fund. The two-hour event averaged 59.3 million viewers, while 89 million tuned in to some portion of the telecast. By comparison, Thursday's speech by President Bush drew 82 million viewers.
The evening opened on a powerful note, as an image of the New York City skyline faded into a candlelit soundstage with Springsteen, who had only a guitar, a harmonica and a small cluster of backup singers.
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· www.tributetoheroes.org: Find out how you can help at the telethon's official Website
"This is a prayer for our fallen brothers and sisters," Springsteen said, before launching into a heart-wrenching version of his unrecorded song, "My City of Ruins."
Tom Hanks then offered his own stirring opening monologue. "We're going to try and do something," Hanks said, quoting the words of the passengers who called their relatives by cell phone before their hijacked plane crashed down in Pennsylvania September 11.
"In their heroic, undying spirit, we all feel the need to do something," Hanks said. "Those of us here tonight are not heroes, we are not healers, we are not protectors of this great nation. We're merely artists, entertainers here to raise spirits...to honor the real heroes."
With that, some of pop's biggest acts paid tribute. U2 performed a medley from a London soundstage. Paul Simon, sporting an FDNY cap, offered up a haunting rendition of "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Tom Petty stared down the camera as he and the Heartbreakers sang his song of resilience, "I Won't Back Down." And, in an odd yet effective pairing, Limp Bizkit joined Goo Goo Dolls frontman Johnny Rzeznik for a reworked cover of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here."
Tom Cruise told the story of New York's fallen Fire Department Chaplain, the Reverend Mike Judge, leading into Mariah Carey's heartfelt rendition of "Hero," her first performance since her breakdown in July.
"Tonight, ['Hero'] has even more meaning for all of you out there," Carey said, referring to the rescue workers.
George Clooney spoke of a New York cop from the 40th Precinct in the Bronx, who went to work Tuesday morning to file his retirement papers and then lost his life in the rescue effort. Clooney then introduced the night's Celebrity Phone Bank, as Halle Berry, Cindy Crawford, Penélope Cruz, John Cusack, Benicio Del Toro, Danny DeVito, Sally Field, Andy Garcia, Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding Jr., Goldie Hawn, Salma Hayek, Michael Keaton, Reba McEntire, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Rhea Perlman, Brad Pitt, Kurt Russell, Meg Ryan, Adam Sandler, Sylvester Stallone, Ben Stiller, Mark Wahlberg and James Woods answered the phones (and presumably surprised a few callers in the process). Presenters like Julia Roberts, Robin Williams and Cruise manned the phone bank after giving their tributes.
Other memorable performances Friday: Celine Dion came out of "retirement" to sing her heart out on "God Bless America." (She may be Canadian, but her lungs were all-American.) And Neil Young was joined by a string section for a moving cover of John Lennon's "Imagine."
Young later reappeared with Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready for a rare TV performance by the publicity-shy band--a rendition of their song "The Long Road." Other performers Friday included Faith Hill, Wyclef Jean, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, Bon Jovi, the Dixie Chicks, Dave Matthews, Sheryl Crow and Sting.
Producer Joel Gallen (of MTV Movie Awards fame) kept things simple throughout the night: Stars and musicians appeared on a darkened soundstage, in front of lit candles shaped into pyramids. The telethon ran commercial-free, and the night's monologues and performances were broken up only by taped segments with children and victims' family members.
For a show organized in just a week's time, the telethon came off remarkably smooth, with nary a missed cue, flubbed speech or regrettable performance.
Will Smith and boxing legend Muhammad Ali (whom Smith plays in the upcoming film Ali) also spoke out against hate crimes directed toward the Muslim community, reminding people that "it was hate, not religion, that guided these horrible attacks."
Former NYPD Blue costars Dennis Franz and Jimmy Smits reteamed to tell of the bravery of New York's finest, before segueing into a performance by Billy Joel, who sang "New York State of Mind" with a fireman's helmet on his piano.
Kelsey Grammer quoted President John F. Kennedy. Jim Carrey quoted Winston Churchill and then told the story of two coworkers in the World Trade Center who carried a woman in a wheelchair down more than 60 flights of stairs.
Friday night's telethon was underwritten by CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox, who began collaborating on the project late last week. It was held under tight security (the locations weren't revealed before the show) at the CBS studios in Los Angeles and Sony soundstages in New York. Sting and U2 performed live via satellite from London.
TV networks have not banded together like this since at least the 1950s. But to get an idea of just how unprecedented the event was, viewers needed only flip through the channels on their cable box. Aside from a handful of cable channels (mostly sports-related), nearly every major network aired the telethon, including the WB, UPN, E!, MTV, PBS, Comedy Central, HBO, Telemundo and Univision, not to mention 8,000 radio stations. The telecast was beamed to 156 countries.
Prior to the telethon, E! News Daily presented its own special, Hollywood Unites, featuring thoughts from stars such as Shannon Elizabeth, Patrick Warburton, Andy Dick, Edward James Olmos and Doris Roberts.
Meanwhile, donations are still being accepted at the telethon's Website, www.tributetoheroes.org, and at Yahoo!'s mirror site, tribute.yahoo.com. To donate by phone, call 1-866-868-6483.