America's top actors and musicians check their egos at the door for a tear-jerking, flag-waving fund-raiser

By Bruce Fretts and Clarissa Cruz
October 05, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Denzel Washington‘s plane couldn’t make it on time, so Chris Rock stepped in. Dave Matthews‘ number was an 11th-hour addition. And bomb-sniffing dogs checked every piece of equipment rolled onto the stages. Yet Sept. 21’s America: A Tribute to Heroes came off with flying colors—red, white, and blue—and raised $150 million in pledges for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

No doubt many of those callers were trying to reach the celebrity phone bank, whose ranks included Jack Nicholson, Whoopi Goldberg, and Goldie Hawn. George Clooney suggested and organized the panel to include the many stars who couldn’t be squeezed onto the program, though others had to be turned away. And while celebs did chat with random callers, they weren’t taking credit-card numbers (23,500 volunteers and 15,000 automated operators handled that).

Produced from New York, L.A., and London by MTV Movie Awards honcho Joel Gallen, the special was conceived by the Big Four network chiefs a mere week in advance. DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg called such stars as Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, and Tom Hanks at home over the weekend before the show to secure their participation. Major details (such as Will Smith‘s speech, which was completely rewritten two hours before the telecast) were hammered out at the last minute.

The show, which aired on 35 networks, featured a mind-blowing array of musicians, some of them recruited by Interscope Records exec Jimmy Iovine. Highlights included Bruce Springsteen‘s opener, ”My City of Ruins” (written before the tragedy but not yet recorded), and Neil Young‘s warbling, heartfelt take on John Lennon‘s ”Imagine.” Interscope is reportedly readying a benefit CD of the performances.

In keeping with the night’s selfless spirit, performers weren’t ID’d on screen. ”This show was not about who these people were,” explains Gallen. ”It was more about what they had to say.” But that left the unhip asking ”Who’s that young girl at the piano?” (Answer: Alicia Keys, tapped with members of Limp Bizkit and the Goo Goo Dolls to attract younger viewers.) Tribute writers were also stellar: Rolling Stone‘s David Wild, Democratic point man Bob Shrum, Republican speechwriter Peggy Noonan, and Everybody Loves Raymond creator Philip Rosenthal.

But perhaps the most powerful moment—a plea for tolerance—was unscripted. ”If Muhammad Ali wants to talk, you let him talk,” Rosenthal says of the Muslim champ. ”What you heard was what was in his heart.”

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