It may come as a surprise to some that Jackson is among the highest-grossing box-office stars. But not when clips from his movies started to roll, among them "Pulp Fiction," "Die Hard: With a Vengeance," " Iron Man," four Spike Lee joints and, of course, those three little "Star Wars" films.
Jackson is the 23rd recipient of the American Cinematheque Award -- previous winners include Julia Roberts, George Clooney and Al Pacino. The ceremony was a fundraiser for the Cinematheque's film and video programming at the historic Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. An edited version of the tribute will air Dec. 9 on AMC. Make that a heavily edited version.
Many friends and colleagues spoke off the cuff instead of off the teleprompter, telling warm, funny stories. In an otherwise blue speech, George Lopez said, "We love Sam Jackson for 'Shaft,' we respect him for 'Pulp Fiction' " (which garnered Jackson an Oscar nomination) "and we forgive him for 'The Man.' "
The "Star Wars" robots C-3PO and R2-D2 took the stage calling "Master Jackson" delightful to work with, "for a human." Denzel Washington reminisced about their New York theater days together. "We worked off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway, nowhere near Broadway," he joked of those times 30 years back. Other costars paying tribute included Kerry Washington, Vin Diesel and Sharon Stone, his costar in "Sphere," who took a winding route to guess what the middle initial L. stood for. Starting with "Luscious" and "L'amour," she wound it up neatly: "The L stands for 'Legend.' "
Jackson's wife, actress LaTanya Richardson Jackson, spoke of her husband's collaboration with Spike Lee in four films. She proudly noted that for his role as the crack addict Gator Purify in "Jungle Fever," the Cannes Film Festival introduced a special category for supporting actor, the Prix du Meilleur, "just to honor him."
Before presenting Jackson with the award, director George Lucas praised him, calling him "unequivocally one of the most honest, straightforward, kindest human beings I've ever met."
Jackson, who will turn 60 on Dec. 21 but looks years younger, took the stage to an enthusiastic standing ovation. He thanked his family and colleagues, adding that the full list would run as long as the "Iron Man" credits. He lauded the American Cinematheque for its work, saying, "In this age of DVDs and Internet downloads, I think it's very important that there's an organization out there that values and salutes the moviegoing experience."
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Speaking with a grace and generosity that had been remarked upon all evening, Jackson said the award not only honored his contribution to filmmaking but also his lifetime as a movie fan. "And to everyone in this room, and audiences all over the world, I give you my heartfelt thanks."
Rosen is a freelance writer.