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Kennedy honorees: Mettle behind medals

Led Zeppelin band members from left, Robert Plant,

Led Zeppelin band members from left, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page arrive at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honorees held at the Kennedy Center Hall of States in Washington, D.C. (Dec. 2, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

They're legendary talents from different disciplines. And they're all ending the year with the same, very important date.

Musicians, a singular ballerina, an iconic actor and an after-hours television fixture are in the presidential box for the 35th Annual Kennedy Center Honors. Taped at the start of the month in Washington, D.C., the ever-classy ceremony will have its yearly CBS telecast Wednesday at 9 p.m.

As she has since 2003, Caroline Kennedy presides over the event. Performers ranging from Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin to Bonnie Raitt, Kid Rock, Foo Fighters and Heart turn out to salute the honorees.

And just why are they the honorees this year? Here's our take on the reasons each is being presented with the medal generally considered the highest entertainment award America has to give.

DUSTIN HOFFMAN New York stage actor Hoffman was propelled to a screen stardom in "The Graduate," which has yielded other all-time-classic performances and movies -- "Midnight Cowboy," "Kramer vs. Kramer," "Tootsie" and "Rain Man," to name a mere handful. And in the theater, Hoffman's Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman" is widely regarded as one of the best interpretations of the character ever.

LED ZEPPELIN Any music fan old enough to remember will tell you Led Zeppelin was the pre-eminent hard rock band of the 1970s. Concerts routinely sold out in hours, LPs went gold in days and one album, 1975's "Physical Graffiti," went platinum on pre-orders alone.

Like any great band, Zeppelin had its own distinctive sound, a fusion of rock and blues. And of course, there were Robert Plant's howling vocals and Jimmy Page's searing guitar licks. But Zeppelin also had a virtuoso drummer in John Bonham, whose syncopated style gave the band its unmistakable backbone.

DAVID LETTERMAN First on NBC and since on CBS, Letterman long has been a caustically comedic barometer of what's happening in the world, but he's also intuitive enough to turn more serious when warranted (his occasional personal troubles, the immediate aftermath of 9/11, etc.). There's a certain delicious anticipation in how uncomfortable he's likely to look while sitting wordlessly, being feted by others.

NATALIA MAKAROVA She danced with the best of her generation -- Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Alexander Godunov -- and shined because of brilliant technique and pure artistry. Her arms curving elegantly, her steps precise, her very being made you believe she was a swan, only more graceful than those that honk.

BUDDY GUY The Louisiana native moved to Chicago in the 1950s and turned that city's blues sound into his own special style. . .so special, in fact, that the industry didn't know what to do with it. Fans did, however, and so did a generation of young musicians -- including Eric Clapton -- who were incorporating the blues into their rock and roll sound.

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