September 28, 2001

Act of Kindness

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Sure, we’ve seen celebrities cry, plenty of times. We’ve seen them depressed, despairing, despondent. But this time their tears weren’t brought on by a fictional event in a movie: a pretend car accident, a pretend lover walking out, a pretend terrorist bombing. It was the all-too-real events of September 11th that brought together dozens of A-list celebrities on Friday night in an unprecedented display of unity and collective effort for a telethon entitled America: A Tribute to Heroes. If you were one of the 89 million who tuned in, you may have seen Muhammed Ali struggle to explain that “Islam is peace.” If you donated a portion of the 150 million dollars that the event raised, you may have gotten Sylvester Stallone, Brad Pitt, or Goldie Hawn on the phone. 8,000 radio stations and 156 countries tuned in as celebrities reminded us that they, too, are American citizens who feel pain and who don’t always cry fake tears.

The event involved not only a coming together of celebrities, but a coming together of networks, at a time of year when they’re usually waging a ratings war. NBC began planning an event the week following the disaster and when CBS heard about it, the two networks began talking. They called up the two other major networks, ABC and Fox, and the four underwrote and paid for the event, which was broadcast on almost every network that wasn’t showing a baseball game. The celebrities donated their time: in fact, no one will receive any money except the United Way’s September 11th Fund.

The night was simple, emotional, and uninterrupted. Producer Joel Gallen (known for his work on the MTV VMAs) decided that there was to be no live audience, no applause, and no set, except displays of pillar candles behind the performers. The CBS soundstages in LA and Sony soundstages in New York were under tight security: there were no red carpets and no media camping outside to see what people were wearing. Celebrities looked like real people: a little confused, a little tired, a little down. Some, including Paul Simon and Sylvester Stallone, sported FDNY and NYPD hats, while others, such as Wyclef Jean (who sang Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”), clad themselves in American flag attire.

Bruce Springsteen started things up with “My City of Ruins,” which beckoned listeners to “c’mon rise up.” Tom Hanks then reminded that “those of us here tonight are not heroes; we are not healers, nor protectors of this great nation. We are artists, entertainers, here to raise spirits and, we hope, a great deal of money.” Neil Young revived John Lennon’s “Imagine” and later joined Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready to sing “The Long Road.” Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst and the Goo-Goo Dolls’ Johnny Rzeznik performed Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” while Sting and U2 were on hand to perform live from London. Stevie Wonder, Faith Hill, Bon Jovi, and the Dixie Chicks were among the other performers.

The songs were neither flashy nor elaborate: Springsteen, Dave Matthews, and Paul Simon appeared alone with their guitars, while Sheryl Crow, Alicia Keys, and Billy Joel were alone with their pianos. Simon’s saddening rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” was offset by Joel’s more upbeat “New York State of Mind,” though the New York firefighter’s helmet set atop Joel’s piano reminded of the performance’s grim inspiration. Mariah Carey set her personal problems aside to sing “Hero” after Tom Cruise told the story of Mike Judge, the NYFD Chaplain who died while administering last rights to a dying fireman. Celine Dion, a Canadian, lent her talents for the singing of “God Bless America,” and the evening wrapped up with Willie Nelson leading all of the celebrities in “America the Beautiful.”

Funnymen halted their humor. Chris Rock, Jim Carrey, Ray Romano, Conan O’Brien, and Will Smith left their comedy routines at home, exhibiting instead almost eerily straight faces as they told the stories of firefighters, policemen, and other men and women who performed selfless acts of heroism the day of the disaster.

Television personalities, including Calista Flockhart, Sela Ward, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lucy Liu, and Kelsey Grammar, delivered sober speeches. Jimmy Smits and Denis Franz reteamed to tell the story of two real-life NYPD cops who didn’t make it out of the second tower in time. Big-time movie stars Julia Roberts, George Clooney, and Cameron Diaz brought the nation’s attention to several heroic individuals who have gained celebrity status themselves, though they most likely would have liked to attain it in a different manner.

A score of other superstars seemed more than willing to stay out of the spotlight and perform the simple task of answering the phones and taking donations. If you called that night, you may have been lucky enough to talk to Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Adam Sandler, Halle Berry, Whoopi Goldberg, Meg Ryan, Salma Hayek, Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz, Benicio del Toro, James Woods, Ben Stiller, Brad Pitt, Sally Field, Danny DeVito, Andy Garcia, John Cusack, Cindy Crawford, Michael Keaton, Reba McEntire, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Rhea Perlman, or Sylvester Stallone.

A spokesperson reported that there were 300,000 calls within the first 15 minutes of the telethon, and the money keeps rolling in as donations are still being taken at

It was a night when celebrities set their celebrity aside, a night when Hollywood stopped acting, and nobody really cared about who was dating who and who was wearing what. Mariah Carey’s performance did more than commemorate a hero: it reminded that a few weeks back, her emotional breakdown was one of the top stories in the papers. Many are probably wishing that that was still the biggest news of the day.

Archived article by Julia Ramey