“I remember Richard specifically said, ‘You can paint on my canvas.’ No human being had ever said that to me before,” John Oliver recalled in his opening remarks at this year’s Lincoln Center’s American Songbook Gala. The Last Week Tonight host was on hand to honor HBO’s chair and CEO, Richard Plepler, and his commitment to storytelling since joining the network in 1992.
The annual event, dedicated to spotlighting American music, featured Keith Urban, Hamilton’s Renée Elise Goldsberry and Daenerys Targaryen herself, Emilia Clarke, performing pop standards, including “What a Wonderful World,” “L-O-V-E” and “The Way You Look Tonight.” With Paul Shaffer leading the Home Box Orchestra, the event featured additional musical moments from Tony Bennett, Jimmy Buffett, among others, as well as Plepler’s teenage daughter, Eden. Between performances, Nicole Kidman and Lena Dunham each offered heartfelt anecdotes about their arrivals at HBO, before Plepler himself closed with a speech about family, literature and luck.
Here are some of the night’s sentiments, from the guests and the honoree.
He’s a cheerleader.
“I’m proud to call him my boss, my cheerleader, my mentor and my very dear friend,” said Nicole Kidman who stars and co-produces alongside Reese Witherspoon in Big Little Lies, and picked up a Golden Globe and Emmy along the way. “Richard took a chance on us, not only as actresses but as producers,” she continued. “He greenlit a production produced by women and starring women way before there was a big push to do so.”
Girls co-creator and star Lena Dunham took the stage to say she considers Plepler a mentor, ally, and companion, who gave her the foundation she needed to be successful. “I was only 23 when I began at HBO, and I lied and told Richard that I read The New York Times every day,” she shared. “He, in turn, welcomed me into his creative family, and I'm so lucky to have found a nourishing place to grow where no one expects me to shave my legs.”
And he keeps it about family.
After his daughter, Eden covered “Fly Me to the Moon,” Plepler was welcomed to the stage with a standing ovation. “When I came to HBO 26 years ago,” he began, “My dad gave me three books: Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly, Theodore H. White’s In Search of History and E.B. White’s Here Is New York.” An avid consumer of literature, Plepler reflected on how White’s love letter to the Big Apple relates to his own life and career. “There’s a beautiful line that says, ‘When a young man comes to New York, he must be willing to be lucky.’ I was very willing and I have been very, very lucky.”
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