The Academy's special honorees. Why Rogers, North, Newman won Oscar's highest praise

Unlike most of the happy winners at last night's Academy Awards ceremony, Buddy Rogers wasn't squirming with suspense as his category drew near. Along with composer Alex North and actor-director-producer Paul Newman, he joined the 58th annual festivities as an honorary recipient -- a Hollywood veteran who has earned Oscar's highest praise, a noncompetitive award announced in advance and based on a long career of merit both on and off the screen.

It is widely agreed by serious Hollywood-watchers that there's no shame in an Oscarless career. Such has been the lot, after all, of such luminaries as Greta Garbo and Charles Chaplin, whose careers hardly collapsed as a result. Yet a nod from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences carries a seal of professional approval -- and popularity -- that can't be gainsaid. Its awards have been coveted by movie professionals since their inception in the days of silent cinema.

Of the three special prizes bestowed last night, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award is seen by Hollywood observers as the most prestigious. It isn't mandatory, and has been quietly omitted (in five of the 30 years since it was established) when a suitable recipient couldn't be found. To earn it, a candidate must be specially approved by the motion-picture academy's board of governors on the basis of ``humanitarian efforts'' that have ``brought credit to the industry.''

Thus it wasn't his near-legendary performance in ``Wings,'' the 1927 aeroplane epic that copped the first Oscar for ``best picture,'' that won Charles ``Buddy'' Rogers his award. Nor was it his contribution to more than 40 other films between his 1926 silent-screen debut and his retirement from acting in 1957.

Rather, his recognition by Oscar grew from half a century of charitable work, involving the donation of time and money to causes as different as the Boy Scouts of America and a Midnight Mission serving the Los Angeles skid row. Other activities have ranged from supporting the Veteran's Assistance League and the University of Southern California cinema school to sponsoring a fund-raising golf tournament and appearing regularly on charity-geared telethons.

The motion-picture academy isn't the first organization to smile on Rogers for his humanitarian streak. Other recent honors have included an award from Child-Help USA and another for his contributions to Los Angeles philanthropies. Nor is this octogenarian a newcomer to humanitarian activities, having served as an original trustee of the Mary Pickford Foundation, named for the equally glittering Hollywood star he married in 1936. Over the years his work has been varied as well as long-lasting, associating him with such institutions as the National Conference of Christians and Jews (he serves on the national board of directors) and the Motion Picture and Television Fund.

In sum, he's impressive company for Newman and North, his fellow honorees. Newman was also cited for ``personal integrity,'' though, as well as for the achievement that comes most readily to the thoughts of his fans, ``his many memorable and compelling screen performances.''

Newman has never won a competitive Oscar, despite his strong and durable popularity -- and despite six ``best actor'' nominations stretching from ``Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'' in 1958 to ``The Verdict'' in 1983, plus a ``best picture'' nomination for the 1968 drama ``Rachel, Rachel,'' which he produced. In a statement released to the press, academy president Robert Wise called the special Newman award ``an honor long overdue.'' Many movie-scene observers agree.

And ditto for Alex North, the least famous but most heard-from member of the trio. Heard from, that is, via the scores he has composed for a long list of movies as diverse as ``Daddy Long Legs'' and ``Prizzi's Honor.''

North first joined the Oscar race in 1951, when he was nominated for scoring ``Death of a Salesman'' and ``A Streetcar Named Desire,'' a pair of pictures with theatrical roots. He received 14 subsequent nods for such perennial favorites as ``The Misfits'' and ``Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf,'' but never the prize that dangled before him so often. Making up for lost time, the academy has finally taken official notice of ``his brilliant artistry in the creation of memorable music for motion pictures.'' Admirers of music and movies alike were among those who cheered the gesture last night.

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