From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
It could have been the anti-Oscars: no glitzy sets, designer gowns or even applause. Backstage at CBS Television City in Los Angeles, Hollywood's heavies mingled quietly, exchanging hugs instead of air kisses. Tom Cruise nestled on the sofa with his girlfriend, Penélope Cruz, while nearby Meg Ryan cooed over Cindy Crawford's 18-day-old baby, Kaia. Well into the program's second hour Julia Roberts choked back tears as she prepared to step onstage "It's unfair that you put me so late in the show," she said half joking, to a producer "I, was already crying. Now you put me out there what do you expect me to do?"

It was anything but show business as usual. Hastily cobbled together in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, America: A Tribute to Heroes brought together more than 80 entertainers in Los Angeles, New York City and London on Sept. 21 to sing, speak, staff phones and—most important—help raise millions of dollars for the United Way's effort to assist disaster victims and their relatives (the tally as of Sept. 25: more than $150 million and counting). An estimated 89 million Americans—nearly 17 million more than watched the most recent Academy Awards—tuned in to at least part of the two-hour live show which was televised on the four major broadcast networks and 31 other channel and reached 209 foreign countries. This is a show that every-body involved in will never forget," says its producer Joel Gallen. "And I certainly hope that we never have to do another."

Hollywood, it seemed, had shaken off its shock and figured out what it could do best to help the families of the estimated 7,000 people killed or missing from the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, as well as the firefighters, police and emergency workers who risked their lives amid the rubble. "We are not heroes." Tom Hanks declared early in the show. "We are merely artists and entertainers here to raise spirits and, we hope, a great deal of money." To some, like Billy Joel, who contributed a rousing version of his 1976 song "New York State of Mind" to the telethon from a Manhattan studio, "there was a sense of inadequacy I wish I could be down there moving wreckage and searching for bodies, but we can't, so this is what we do.

Others followed suit. At the request of New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Oprah Winfrey and James Earl Jones led an interfaith memorial service for victims' families at Yankee Stadium Sept. 23, where Bette Midler, Plácido Domingo, Marc Anthony and country singer Lee Greenwood performed. Sandra Bullock, Jim Carrey Rosie O'Donnell, Julia Roberts and hip-hop mogul Dr. Dre wrote checks of $1 million or more to relief efforts and performers such as Madonna and Britney Spears announced they would donate additional millions in concert proceeds (see box, p. 75) Some stars Kept up volunteer work in Manhattan or went to the site of the Twin Towers to cheer exhausted rescuers, "I shook as many hands as I could," says Greenwood, whose 1984 "God Bless the USA" got the biggest increase in radio airplay of any song last week. "I'll go anywhere that I'm needed."

In the wake of the attacks, the entertainment industry itself has been rethinking its business. Movie studios postponed films with terrorist themes—including Arnold Schwarzenegger's Collateral Damage. "You want to release movies that are entertaining for people with some escapism there" says Schwarzenegger who has been named by Giuliani to the board of directors of the Twin Towers Relief Fund "But Hollywood is now asking 'What's appropriate?' I don't think anyone has the answers at this point."

Television schedules were also thrown into chaos, with postponed premieres, production delays and plot retoolings. Plummeting tourism in New York City forced four Broadway shows to close; others asked cast and crew to take pay cuts to survive. In Los Angeles, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's Sept. 20 warning that terrorists might target one or more major Hollywood studios has security forces swarming on their lots.

For the telethon, police with bomb-sniffing dogs swept the production locations in L.A. and New York City, which was not announced to the public beforehand. ("We could be down at Ground Zero digging," grumbled one NYPD cop.) "Usually famous people don't walk around with laminated passes on their necks," says Joel, recalling his experience at the New York set. "But we all wore them. Without that pass you weren't going anywhere." Preparations for the show had kicked into gear only six days earlier, when the heads of the major TV networks, on a conference call, hatched the idea of a joint production. They contacted Gallen, 42, a veteran producer of extravaganzas such as the MTV Movie Awards.

Envisioning a show "about healing and hearing the message of the songs," he opened his Rolodex and dialed Paul Simon, who quickly signed on to sing "Bridge over Troubled Water." Mariah Carey agreed to do her first performance since her second hospitalization for an emotional breakdown. "I called her manager and said, 'I don't know where she's at mentally, I just want to know if she would come out and sing her song 'Hero,' " says Gallon "Her manager called her and she was very emotional She said, 'I have to do this.'"

Musicians and actors (who read tributes to rescuers' acts of bravery) rushed to volunteer; within 24 hours the show was on its way to being overbooked. (Sources say even Michael Jackson was turned down.) "Too many people wanted in" says Gallen. "By Tuesday I was asking myself 'What do I do with all these people?' " Enter George Clooney who suggested a celebrity phone bank that would give more stars a way to play a part—and a few donors a surprise "One caller didn't want to talk to me" an amused Reba McEntire told Extra. "They wanted to talk to Jack Nicholson, so I said, 'Well, I'm sorry. He's busy talking to somebody else.'" Says Cuba Gooding Jr.: "I got everything from people in Iowa going, 'Now say your name a again. Cuber Godden?' to "Oh my goodness, honey, it's Cuba!'"

Some participants were affected by the tragedy in more profound ways. Kelsey Grammer's voice trembled as he quoted John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage; David Angell, the Emmy-winning producer of Grammer's sitcom Frasier and his wife Lynn, had been passengers on American Airlines Flight 11 the first plane to collide with the World Trade Center. From London Sting dedicated his song "Fragile" to his "good friend" Herman Sandler m investment banker who was a major supporter of the singer's Rainforest Foundation and who died while working in my kids' school who lost parents, says New Jersey native on Bon Jovi, whose publicist lost her husband in the World Trade Center attack. Accompanied by Richie Sambora, Bon Jovi sang an acoustic version of "Livin" on a Prayer. "Nobody spoke about the Taliban or terrorism or war," says Bon Jovi. "The music was soothing."

Against all odds, the show went as planned—except for the finale. Willie Nelson intended to sing "America the Beautiful" solo. To his surprise, the other performers in L.A. gradually came out onstage to sing or hum along. "We were just holding each other," says Gooding. "I had my arm around Muhammad Ali"—who in a rare speaking appearance defended Islam and condemned the terrorists with equal passion—"and he was standing there the whole time 10 minutes just singing. It really was amazing." (A CD and DVD of the telethon performances with their entire prices going to the United Way's September 11 Fund, will be released in a few weeks.)

Other benefits are in the works. Michael Jackson, who helped raise $65 million for famine relief in Africa 16 years ago with "We Are the World," is assembling a celebrity chorus to record a song he has written called "What More Can I Give?" An already taped all-star remake of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" intended to benefit the battle against AIDS will instead donate half its earnings to the United Way. Meanwhile, in New York City on Sept. 22, an assortment of luminaries including Diana Ross, several Sopranos actors and members of the New York Knicks recorded the 1979 hit "We Are Family" to benefit groups working against racial intolerance in the disaster's wake. "It's funny and kind of campy but at the same time sends a serious message" says one participant actor Taye Diggs.

Jerry Seinfeld will headline a benefit comedy show at Carnegie Hall Oct. 8; Paul McCartney is planning a concert to raise money for families of firefighters (his father was a fireman in Liverpool). Roberts, Rob Lowe, Sarah Michelle Gellar and other stars taped public service announcements for the Red Cross encouraging viewers to donate money or blood and performers including Chris Rock and Aerosmith contacted the USO to volunteer to entertain troops overseas.

In New York, a small cadre of stars continued volunteer work they had been doing since the first days after the tragedy. Susan Sarandon has been visiting firehouses and serving up food for rescue workers. "She goes home and cries," says a spokesman for Sarandon whose close friend, actress Berry Berenson, died on one of the hijacked flights. Saran-don's companion Tim Robbins who drove to New York from L.A. after the attacks helped round up donations of steel-toed boots for rescuers Sarah Jessica Parker at Ground Zero to hand out water bottles wound Up autographing firefighters' hats; others who dropped by to sling food or thank rescuers in-eluded Sigourney Weaver, Harrison Ford and Elizabeth Taylor.

After his telethon performance, Billy Joel hitched a ride downtown with two cops and spent hours talking to rescue workers "just to tell them thank you," he says. The wreckage, he says, is hard to look at: "Some guys spend 24 hours a day there, and I don't know how they do it. My legs turned into jelly. I think if I had had that image in my head of what I saw in person I might not have been able to get through the song."

As the telethon ended, millions had been raised, but the celebrities were thinking about the same things that were on most Americans' minds. "What did we talk about? Family," says Jon Bon Jovi of his wait backstage with Hanks and Bruce Springsteen. "I wanted to get home, and I told people I was crawling into bed with my two kids and my wife. It was that kind of talk. Everybody lost somebody that they knew. It was not a celebration. It was just grieving."

• Michael Fleeman, Maureen Harrington, Marisa Laudadio, Cynthia Wang and Pamela Warrick in Los Angeles, Sharon Cotliar, Mark Dagostino, Caroline Howard, Ellen Mazo and Bruce Stockier in New York City and Linda Kramer in Washington, D.C.

  • Contributors:
  • Michael Fleeman,
  • Maureen Harrington,
  • Marisa Laudadio,
  • Cynthia Wang,
  • Pamela Warrick,
  • Sharon Cotliar,
  • Mark Dagostino,
  • Caroline Howard,
  • Ellen Mazo,
  • Bruce Stockier,
  • Linda Kramer.