Hanks was honored with four other legends: singer-songwriter Sting, singer-songwriter-minister Al Green, comedian Lily Tomlin and ballerina Patricia McBride.
Stephen Colbert, who soon will relinquish his Comedy Central show and next year inherit David Letterman's chair, was the emcee at the Kennedy Honors, now in their 37th year. Who's honoring whom is kept secret until the performers who extol them take the stage.
Hanks' friend Letterman kicked off tributes to the 58-year-old actor, whose credits include "Forrest Gump," "Philadelphia," "Apollo 13" and "Sleepless in Seattle."
Meryl Streep heaped praise on Sting, 63, an actor, author and activist, not to mention rock 'n' roll giant. Then Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars and Herbie Hancock rocked and rollicked with musical tributes.
Green, 68, whose soaring falsetto has attracted countless imitators — not least President Obama, the guest of honor — was lauded by Whoopi Goldberg before Jennifer Hudson, Usher, Sam Moore, Mavis Staples and Earth, Wind & Fire raised the roof. Goldberg joked that none of the tributes would match the original.
"No, honey, can't nobody do Al Green. Nobody," she said. "No disrespect, POTUS, there's only one Al Green."
Tomlin, 75, joined the television show "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" in 1969 and emerged a star with such peculiar characters as Ernestine, the power-hungry telephone operator. Remember the days, Jane Fonda asked, when only the telephone operator was listening in on our calls?
Fonda joked that if it weren't for Tomlin, the film "9 to 5" might have been called "They Shoot Bosses, Don't They?" Garrison Keillor, Jane Lynch, Reba McEntire and "Saturday Night Live's" Kate McKinnon also recalled Tomlin's zingers.
Actress Christine Baranski had a heartfelt "Brava" for McBride, 72, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet who gave her farewell performance in 1989. Dancers pirouetted across the stage in homage to McBride, including some from the Charlotte Ballet, the North Carolina company she now helps lead.
The five honorees sat with the president and First Lady Michelle Obama at the black-tie gala, which drew political, corporate and arts heavyweights to the Opera House at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Obama took ribbing from the stage, including for his rendition of Green's hit single "Let's Stay Together." And from the stage, Letterman asked: "Mr. President, have you seen my show? I pardon a turkey every night."
Hanks was effusive before the show, saying that unlike other awards shows, there's no competition — and only winners.
Steven Spielberg said that Hanks' brilliance is exceeded only by his modesty and that away from the set, Hanks is "more Clark Kent than Superman." Spielberg, who directed Hanks in films including "Saving Private Ryan," singled out the actor for showing America the "nobility of our men and women in uniform."
Martin Short, the actor and comedian, took it from there, heralding Hanks with singers and dancers by tweaking the lyrics of "Yankee Doodle Dandy."
Several U.S. military bands and choirs joined forces with the men and women on stage and an Air Force ceremonial brass ensemble filled the aisles of the Opera House. Together they knocked out the title song from the 1942 Broadway musical film.
The final segment was in tribute to Sting, whom Streep noted had a "restless heart" and had delivered almost 40 years of music from his band the Police's early hit, "Roxanne," to his new Broadway musical, "The Last Ship."
"Every breath you take, we'll be watching you, man," she said.
The curtain came down when the cast of "The Last Ship" performed the show's title number. Sting wrote the play's music and lyrics, which tell the story of a depressed shipbuilding town in northern England, a place much like the one where the performer, whose given name is Gordon Sumner, grew up. It was a fitting, if chancy finale, requiring singer-dancers to make a mad dash after their Sunday matinee in midtown Manhattan.
The Kennedy Honors, given only to living artists, recognize their contributions to American culture through music, dance, theater, opera, film or TV. The honors date to 1978 and were co-founded by George Stevens Jr., who co-produced the gala with his son, Michael. Watching a rehearsal on Saturday, the elder Stevens cited the common traits of the Class of 2014: talent, dedication and hard work.
"Each one of them worked so hard. Nothing comes easy," said Stevens, who announced from the stage Sunday that this was the last Kennedy Center Honors gala show he and his son would co-produce.
The gala will air as a two-hour, prime-time special on Dec. 30.