WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama on Thursday paid tribute to actor Mel Brooks, chef Jose Andres, NPR interviewer Terry Gross and others at a White House ceremony celebrating “creators who give every piece of themselves to their craft.”
The three were among two dozen artists, writers, playwrights and performers awarded the 2015 National Medals of Arts and Humanities.
“We believe that arts and the humanities are in many ways reflective of our national soul. They’re central to who we are as Americans — dreamers, storyteller, innovators and visionaries,” he said.
Other winners this year include composer Philip Glass, actress and singer Audra McDonald, author Sandra Cisneros and painter Jack Whitten. Musician Santiago Jimenez Jr. and playwright Moises Kaufman round out the list.
Cisneros wrote her critically acclaimed best-seller, “The House on Mango Street” in 1984. Steppenwolf Theatre staged a production of the coming-of-age tale in 2009. Cisneros was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1995.
The annual event is typically a serious affair, held under the glittering chandeliers of the East Room. But it took a quick comic turn this year when Obama paid tribute to Brooks by quoting the comic director’s instructions to his writers on the boundary-pushing film, “Blazing Saddles.”
“Write anything you want because we’ll never be heard from again. We will all be arrested for this movie,” Obama said, laughing.
The president also honored jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and actor Morgan Freeman. Neither was able to attend the ceremony. Freeman was “undoubtedly off playing a black president.” Obama said. “He never lets me have my moment.”
Winners of the medal for arts also included painter Jack Whitten, musician Santiago Jimenez Jr., playwright Moises Kaufman, record producer Berry Gordy, dancer and choreographer Ralph Lemon, playwright and actor Luis Valdez and the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.
The National Humanities Medal was awarded to authors James McBride, Rudolfo Anaya, Louis Menand, Ron Chernow (whose biography of Alexander Hamilton served as the basis for the stage musical “Hamilton”), Abraham Verghese, Elaine Pagels, Isabel Wilkerson, poet Louise Gluck and the Prison University Project, Higher Education Program.
The group could also be described as “Terry Gross and a whole bunch of people Terry Gross has interviewed,” Obama said.
Contributing: Sun-Times staff reporter Miriam Di Nunzio