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Kennedy Center Honors Neil Simon, B.B. King, Sidney Poitier

September 5, 1995 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Neil Simon and B.B. King, masters at capturing the emotions of everyday Americans on Broadway and in the blues, will receive Kennedy Center Honors for their contributions to the nation’s culture.

A fellow honoree is actor Sidney Poitier, known for some of the first popular film roles to explore seriously the lives of American blacks. Opera singer Marilyn Horne and ballet dancer Jacques d’Amboise complete the 18th group of artists honored by the Kennedy Center.

Their lifetime work will be celebrated with a gala performance at the Kennedy Center on Dec. 3. It will be taped for broadcast early next year on CBS-TV.

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President Clinton plans to attend the show, and the honorees are invited to a White House reception earlier that evening.

For the honorees, the fuss began quietly just over a week ago, with an express letter asking whether they would accept the award.

``It’s much like the Pulitzer Prize, a little telegram out of nowhere, and you never had a feeling it was coming,″ Simon, who won a Pulitzer for ``Lost in Yonkers,″ said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.

In announcing the honors Tuesday, Kennedy Center Chairman James D. 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.

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 Etta 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.″

Poitier, 68, is best known for playing dignified characters who respond to racism with controlled anger, reason and intellect. His films include ``Blackboard Jungle,″ ``A Raisin in the Sun,″ ``To Sir, With Love,″ and ``In the Heat of the Night.″ He also starred in ``Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,″ a landmark 1967 film that was the first mainstream movie to support interracial marriage.

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He was the first black man to win the best actor Oscar, for ``Lilies in the Field,″ in 1963.

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

But Poitier said credit for his groundbreaking roles goes to directors and producers who risked their careers to make such pictures at a time of social upheaval.

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

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.