While the 75-year-old actor has said he grew up thinking movie stars had to look like Rock Hudson, it didn't take long for the Los Angeles native to get into acting and start a career that spans five decades and covers just about every genre of film.
Many of his titles were featured in his tribute at the Kennedy Center, which is not far from the famous Watergate hotel -- a site he knows well after playing the ambitious reporter, Carl Bernstein, in "All The President's Men" (1976).
Asked on the red carpet how he was feeling, the actor had a line all ready to deliver.
"My wife keeps reminding me that when I say, 'Pretty good -- I am a nominee,' she says 'No, you are an honoree.' So it is spectacular," he said.
Russian-born Makarova is perhaps best known for leaving her mark on the production of La Bayadère, a ballet that dates to 1877. She transformed the scene "Kingdom of the Shades," and went on to stage the full production in theaters around the world.
Makarova, 72, is no stranger to the Kennedy Center. She won a Tony Award for best actress in a musical for the center's 1984 production of "On Your Toes."
Makarova said before the gala that she considers American ballet "fantastic," adding, "I think it will grow and grow. The interest will never stop."
The audience Sunday night will also feel the rhythm in performances honoring blues legend Buddy Guy. Born into a Louisiana sharecropper family, Guy eventually made Chicago his home at the peak of the blues era in the Windy City. And with his distinct guitar sound, the six-time Grammy Award winner helped pioneer the electric blues with other legends including Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.
"From picking cotton in the field to picking a guitar in the White House, that is a long ways man," Guy told reporters at the Kennedy Center.
The president called Guy "one of the last guardians of the great American blues."