"Before Dustin burst on the scene, it was pretty much OK for movie stars to show up, read their lines and, if the director insisted, act a little," De Niro said. "But then Dustin came along — and he just had to get everything right."
By the end of the night, the Foo Fighters, Kid Rock and Lenny Kravitz got the crowd moving to some of Zeppelin's hits at the Kennedy Center.
Jack Black declared Zeppelin the "greatest rock and roll band of all time."
"That's right. Better than the Beatles. Better than the Stones. Even better than Tenacious D," he said. "And that's not opinion — that's fact."
For the finale, Heart's Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson sang "Stairway to Heaven," accompanied by a full choir and Jason Bonham, son of the late Zeppelin drummer John Bonham.
Zeppelin front man Robert Plant and his bandmates John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page seemed moved by the show.
Meryl Streep first introduced the honorees Saturday as they received the award medallions during a formal dinner at the U.S. State Department hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Clinton said ballerina Makarova "risked everything to have the freedom to dance the way she wanted to dance" when she defected from the Soviet Union in 1970.
Makarova made her debut with the American Ballet Theatre and later was the first exiled artist to return to the Soviet Union before its fall to dance with the Kirov Ballet.
Clinton also took special note of Letterman, saying he must be wondering what he's doing in a crowd of talented artists and musicians.
"Dave and I have a history," she said. "I have been a guest on his show several times, and if you include references to my pant suits, I'm on at least once a week."