Unexpected Celebrities Who Earned A Presidential Medal Of Freedom

One of the highest honors given by the President of the United States is the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This award recognizes those in a wide array of fields who made a significant contribution to the country through security, national interests, world peace, cultural endeavors, and more.

President John F. Kennedy started the tradition after he noticed President Harry S. Truman commemorate civilians during World War II. There have been many unexpected recipients of the award including famous actors, singers, and athletes. Learn about how these celebrities made a difference in the United States.

Billie Jean King Is More Than A Tennis Pro

billie jean king presidential medal of freedom
Grant Halverson/Getty Images
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Billie Jean King is one of the most talented tennis players in the world. She is best remembered for the “Battle of the Sexes” tournament where she defeated Bobby Riggs. Also, her activism work for women’s rights was crucial during the 1970s.

In 2009 President Barack Obama awarded King with the Presidential Medal of Freedom due to her impressive tennis abilities and her fight for gender equality. Not only did King work toward providing equal gender representation in sports, but in all aspects of life.

Fred Rogers Helped Generations Of Kids

fred rogers presidential medal of honor
Fotos International/Courtesy of Getty Images
Fotos International/Courtesy of Getty Images

Those who are fans of Fred Rogers know him best from the PBS children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The show first aired on February 19, 1968 and lasted until 2001. Generations of kids grew up watching his light-hearted show where they learned that their emotions were valid even at a young age.

Rogers was named one of the recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002 by President George W. Bush. His work as a children’s show host encouraged the healthy emotional growth of kids and their families.

Bruce Springsteen Leaves Everything On Stage

bruce springsteen presidential medal of honor
Taylor Hill/Getty Images
Taylor Hill/Getty Images

Many musicians have a distinctive voice, but Bruce “The Boss” Springsteen is one of the most recognized singer-songwriters in the country. As the leader of his E Street Band, he puts on long and energetic concerts playing music from albums like Born to Run and Born in the U.S.A.

After Springsteen supported Hilary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. Obama mentioned that not only was his songwriting enough to earn the award, but his humanitarian efforts and empathetic and honest performances made him that much more deserving.

Meryl Streep’s Biggest Fan

meryl streep presidential medal of honor
David M. Benett/WireImage/Getty Images
David M. Benett/WireImage/Getty Images

Meryl Streep is often described as the best actor of her generation with millions of fans who are aware of her impact in the film industry. Her career has spanned over five decades and she’s proven that her versatility makes her worth watching.

It was obvious that President Barack Obama was a major Meryl Streep fan when he presented her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014. At the ceremony he told her how enamored he was with her acting. Streep has decades of award-winning performances under her belt and she is nowhere near done.

Tiger Woods Puts in the Work

tiger woods presidential medal of honor
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Golf takes many years to perfect. Tiger Woods is known around the world for his status as a professional golfer and ranks second in major championships, including the PGA Tour. During his career he was thrown for a loop when alleged personal problems and injuries affected his reputation. Most recently, Woods won the Masters Tournament and U.S. Open.

This year he got to add a new award to his collection as he was named the a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his achievements in golf.

Oprah Winfrey Is An Example For All

oprah winfrey presidential medal of honor
Bruce Glikas/WireImage/Getty Images
Bruce Glikas/WireImage/Getty Images

After Oprah Winfrey’s hit talk show first aired in the 1980s she became an American household name. It was the highest rated talk show of its time. This allowed her to tackle almost every current issue, have in-depth interviews with popular celebrities, and take good care of her studio audience.

On top of her role as a talk show host, Winfrey is a media executive, actress, producer, and philanthropist. In 2013 President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her memorable work in pop culture and generous philanthropic efforts.

Stevie Wonder Sees The World For What It Is

stevie wonder presidential medal of honor
Michael Kovac/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
Michael Kovac/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

As a child prodigy with a record deal by age 11, Stevie Wonder has not stopped working. His music career spans over six decades with hit songs like "Superstition," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours," and "Sir Duke." He’s been blind for almost all his life, but that hasn’t stopped him from creating music.

It wouldn’t be until 2014 when President Barack Obama would recognize his talents with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Most of the credit should go to his music, but Wonder is also a political activist. One of his causes was to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday.

Walt Disney Built An Empire

walt disney presidential medal of honor
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Walt Disney left a pretty remarkable legacy on the earth. He first started out in basic animation, which ultimately led to the creation of some of today’s most popular cartoon characters. His films are still watched by Disney fans around the world and Disney theme parks are also some of the most visited places ever.

President Lyndon B. Johnson knew that his work was something unlike any other creator and granted him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964. For Walt Disney, nothing was impossible.

Michael Jordan Plays to Win

michael jordan presidential medal of honor
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

On the official NBA website it lists Michael Jordan as being one of greatest basketball players of all time. During the 1980s and 1990s Jordan’s talents helped popularize the NBA across the globe. Besides from being a professional athlete, a lot of his financial success came from his product endorsements and Nike’s Air Jordan sneakers.

A few years ago President Barack Obama gave Michael Jordan the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his one of a kind athletic skills and numerous wins during his time playing for the Chicago Bulls.

Ellen DeGeneres Knows Comedy

ellen degeneres presidential medal of honor
George Pimentel/Getty Images for TINEPARK
George Pimentel/Getty Images for TINEPARK

Talk show hosts are meant to entertain and emotionally connect with the audience. Ellen DeGeneres started her successful career as a stand-up comic and actress. After her sitcom was taken off the air for being too controversial she was able to find herself working as a talk show host.

It’s been 16 years since the premiere and Ellen has managed to keep audiences invested with both her comedy and honest emotional appeal. This led to President Barack Obama naming her a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

Diana Ross: From Motown to National Icon

diana ross presidential medal of honor
Michael Kovac/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
Michael Kovac/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Detroit, Michigan isn’t just the hometown of Motown, but it also brought legendary singer Diana Ross into the spotlight. She is best known for her musical contributions as the lead singer of the Supremes vocal group. Her work in the Motown genre during the 1960s and 1970s led to the Supremes becoming the best charting girl group in U.S. history.

Ross revolutionized the music industry, so President Barack Obama named her one of 2016’s Presidential Medal of Freedom honorees. Her iconic influence on music earned her a “permanent place in the American soundtrack.”

There’s No One Quite Like Tom Hanks

tom hanks presidential medal of honor
Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

Tom Hanks is no stranger to American cinema. He’s starred in almost 100 films during his lifetime and won a couple Academy Awards for Best Actor. Hanks’ performances are raw and emotional, whether he plays a lonely man stranded on an island, a U.S. soldier, an astronaut, or a simple man from Alabama.

His credits in the entertainment industry made a huge impact on American pop culture because his past characters are a symbol for an everyday man struggling to beat the odds. This prompted President Barack Obama to award him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

Lorne Michaels Is The Man Behind The Camera

lorne michaels presidential medal of honor
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for NRDC
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for NRDC

He’s usually not in front of the camera, but Lorne Michaels is the man behind TV’s biggest late night comedy. In 1975 Michaels created the hit show Saturday Night Live, which is now about to begin its 45th season. SNL and Michaels are responsible for kickstarting many popular celebrities’ careers such as Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, and Adam Sandler.

The show is best known for tackling many of today’s top political and cultural moments in a satirical way. Even though President Barack Obama was satirized plenty of times on the show, he still was happy to give Michaels the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

Barbra Streisand Adds Another Award To Her Collection

barbra streisand presidential medal of honor
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

There isn’t much that Barbra Streisand hasn’t accomplished. During her career she’s won numerous Oscars, Grammy Awards, Emmy Awards, Tony Awards, Golden Globes, and Peabody Awards. Streisand started out as a professional singer and made the swift transition into film becoming the first woman to star, write, direct, and produce a major motion picture.

In 2015 President Barack Obama added the Presidential Medal of Freedom to her award collection. Her work in acting, singing, politics, and philanthropy caused her to stand out among her peers.

Robert De Niro Keeps It Moving

robert de niro presidential medal of honor
Paul Bruinooge/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images
Paul Bruinooge/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

One of Hollywood’s most-watched acting veterans is Robert De Niro. His roles in director Martin Scorsese’s films on top of his part in The Godfather Part II earned him massive praise from the entertainment community. As a seven-time Academy Award nominee and two-time Oscar winner, De Niro’s multifaceted career has spanned over five decades.

De Niro also takes an interest in politics and encouraged young people to vote in the last election. His work is a staple in American pop culture and led him to receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2016.

Carol Burnett Leads The Way For Comedy

carol burnett presidential medal of honor
Walter McBride/WireImage/Getty Images
Walter McBride/WireImage/Getty Images

Carol Burnett paved the way for women in television. Her variety show called The Carol Burnett Show was the first of its kind to be hosted by a woman. Her sketches on the show were some of comedy’s finest because they were original, witty, and bold. Years later Burnett became known as one of America’s most cherished entertainers.

After starring in the variety show she moved on to many other TV, film, and writing projects. From the 1950s until now Burnett has shown the country how to successfully mix comedy with emotional depth. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 by President George W. Bush.

The Meaning Behind Bob Dylan’s Songbook

bob dylan presidential medal of honor
Michael Kovac/WireImage/Getty Images
Michael Kovac/WireImage/Getty Images

Bob Dylan’s music filled the air during the 1960s. His songs, like many others during that decade, depicted the reality of life throughout major historical events. Dylan’s voice is also very distinguishable as it has a unique raspy and folk sound.

He earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 under President Barack Obama, who thought that Dylan’s impact on music changed both its sound and message. It gave people a chance to reflect on what was going on in the country during the time of the civil rights movement and Vietnam.

Steven Spielberg’s Influence On Directing

steven spielberg presidential medal of honor
Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic/Getty Images
Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Movies like E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Jaws, Saving Private Ryan, and Indiana Jones all came from the mind of director Steven Spielberg. After an almost five decade long career he has become the highest-grossing film director in history. Most of his movies have earned many prestigious awards due to his directorial influence.

Some prominent directors of today use Spielberg’s techniques as a reference for their own films. For all his breakthrough work as a director President Barack Obama named him one of the 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients.

Lucille Ball Inspired Generations Of Fans

 presidential medal of honor
Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images
Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images

One of America’s most classic sitcoms is still I Love Lucy. Lucille Ball was one of the first female leads on television during that time period. Her show broke many records and changed the format of that media platform for good. Ball’s legacy lives on through her timeless work in the TV and film industry.

On top of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, 13 Emmy Awards, and an induction in the Television Hall of Fame, Ball was posthumously awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1989 by President George H.W. Bush.

Elvis Presley’s Legacy Lives On

elvis presley presidential medal of honor
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

In 2018 musician Elvis Presley became another celebrity to win the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously. Presley was one of the signature singers who helped popularize the rock and roll genre during the 1950s, giving him the nickname "King of Rock and Roll." His music became a staple in America because it reflected the true feelings of young people.

Presley went on to record many high-grossing albums and sell out arenas for his energetic concerts. To Americans, Presley symbolized youth, innocence, nostalgia, and beauty. After over six decades his songs are still cherished by many.