CULVER CITY, Calif.
Standing in the soundstage where Fred Astaire once danced and where Dorothy skipped down the yellow brick road, Morgan Freeman accepted the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award.
Clint Eastwood, Sidney Poitier, Helen Mirren, Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Robbins and Forest Whitaker were among the stars who feted Freeman during a ceremony Thursday at Sony Studios, former home of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
The storied Stage 15 — which AFI chairman Howard Stringer said was once graced by Astaire and Judy Garland in movies — was transformed into an elegant ballroom, its walls draped in red and gold and dotted with giant framed photos of Freeman, whom Poitier introduced as "a prince of the craft of acting."
In a room filled with hundreds of his colleagues and friends, Freeman listened as star after star shared what he or she admires about him and his work. The 74-year-old Oscar winner sat at the head table near the center of the room, beaming.
Jackson told the actor he was inspired by both Freeman's work and his words.
"In a world of too much cubic zirconium, you are the real thing," he said.
Whitaker called Freeman an "adviser, a beacon, a confidant, a shoulder to lean on, protector and friend," both in real life and in the characters he has played.
Freeman blew Robbins a kiss when The Shawshank Redemption star said, "It was an honor being locked up with you, Morgan."
The 31/2-hour celebration included clips of Freeman's legendary films and early performances — including footage of him singing and dancing on TV's The Electric Company in the early 1970s — interspersed with recorded segments of Freeman and other actors and filmmakers reflecting on his career.
There were clips of Freeman the soldier, as in Glory; Freeman the detective, as in Se7en; Freeman the loyal friend, as in Driving Miss Daisy; and Freeman as God, as in Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty.
"I should be ashamed to say that sooner or later, I knew that someone was going to call on me to play God," Freeman said. "I just had to be sure that when I said okay, that it was a comedy."
There were also musical tributes: Garth Brooks and a chorus performed Lean on Me, Betty White changed the words from Hello, Dolly to Hello, Morgan, and Rita Moreno performed a song that she said she had written just for the occasion.
Eastwood presented Freeman with the star-shaped AFI award, calling him "the greatest actor."
"He is the most effortless person to be around and to act," Eastwood said. "I don't know if it's proper to love another man, but this is as close as I'm going to get to it."
Freeman appeared truly humbled.
"This is easy to take but hard to believe. Where I come from in Mississippi, they call this walking in high cotton," he said. "For me, heaven has always been about acting in the movies.
"I'm proud to be an actor, although for this one night, you've made me feel like a star."
Freeman is the 39th recipient of the AFI honor, which recognizes those whose talent helps advance the art of film. Previous honorees have included Poitier, Eastwood, Astaire, Elizabeth Taylor, Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock.