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Kennedy Center Honors Poitier, Simon, King, Horne, d’Amboise

September 6, 1995

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Sidney Poitier, who became an Oscar-winning movie star at a time when few black actors were offered leading roles, will receive one of this year’s Kennedy Center Honors for his lifetime work in film.

The other recipients are playwright Neil Simon, blues great B.B. King, opera singer Marilyn Horne and ballet dancer and teacher Jacques d’Amboise.

They will be honored for lifetime contributions to the arts during a gala performance at the Kennedy Center on Dec. 3. President Clinton plans to attend the show, and the honorees are invited to a White House reception.

The 18th annual performance will be taped for broadcast on CBS-TV early next year.

In announcing the awards Tuesday, Kennedy Center Chairman James D. Wolfensohn said Poitier’s career ``has had a tremendous impact on American culture.″

Poitier, 68, is best known for playing characters who respond to racism with controlled anger, dignity and intellect. His films were cultural milestones in the civil rights era. They include ``Blackboard Jungle,″ ``A Raisin in the Sun,″ ``To Sir, With Love,″ and ``In the Heat of the Night.″

He was the first black man to win the best actor Oscar, for ``Lilies in the Field,″ in 1963. He also starred in ``Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,″ a 1967 film that was the first mainstream movie to support interracial marriage.

``Hollywood was a place not accustomed to exploring the lives of black people,″ Poitier said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

``I chose to play only those parts that would reflect how I viewed myself and how I viewed my country,″ he said.

But Poitier gave credit for his ground-breaking roles to the directors and producers who risked their careers to make such pictures at a time of social upheaval.

And without the civil rights movement, he said, his career would not have been possible.

``My contribution was small indeed compared to the other energies that were a part of the whole mix of the times,″ he said.

Poitier went on to direct several pictures with largely black casts, including ``A Piece of the Action″ and ``Uptown Saturday Night.″

Wolfensohn called Simon ``America’s most prolific and popular playwright.″

He has written 29 plays since he began in the 1960s. ``Number 30 is halfway in the typewriter,″ Simon said Tuesday.

Born in the Bronx, the 68-year-old Simon is best known for his sharp, humorous portraits of New Yorkers. His hits include ``Barefoot in the Park,″ ``The Odd Couple,″ ``The Goodbye Girl,″ and the autobiographical trilogy that began with ``Brighton Beach Memoirs.″

King, 69, expresses the soulful emotions of the Mississippi Delta with his voice and his wailing guitar, named ``Lucille.″

Born in Itta Bena, Miss., he learned to play the guitar from a local preacher. He cut his first record in Memphis, Tenn., in 1949. A long string of hits followed, including ``Recession Blues,″ ``Rock Me, Baby,″ ``How Blue Can You Get,″ and the Grammy-winning ``The Thrill Is Gone.″

Ms. Horne will be honored as ``one of the finest opera singers this country has ever produced,″ Wolfensohn said.

Ms. Horne, 61, made her opera debut in Los Angeles in ``The Bartered Bride″ in 1954. A mezzo-soprano, she became an internationally known star of the modern bel canto revolution.

D’Amboise’s mother sent him to ballet lessons as a boy to keep him out of the New York street gangs. He became one of the New York City Ballet’s principal dancers through the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. And he danced on Broadway and in the films ``Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,″ and ``Carousel.″

The 61-year-old D’Amboise also will be honored for founding the National Dance Institute in 1976. Last year, the institute taught dance to 1,600 children in New York and Jersey City, N.J., schools, with smaller programs in New Hampshire, Texas, New Mexico and Washington, D.C.

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