Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, Robert De Niro, Diana Ross and Bill Gates were among the "particularly impressive" class of 2016 picking up America's highest civilian honour from Barack Obama.
In one of his last acts as commander-in-chief, the President presented the Medal of Freedom to 21 "extraordinary Americans" who have "lifted our spirits, strengthened our union and pushed us towards progress".
During the ceremony at the White House, Mr Obama said the groundbreaking actors, musicians, athletes, philanthropists and scientists had inspired millions around the world.
Other names to receive the award included basketball stars Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, actor Robert Redford, comedian and television host Ellen DeGeneres, sports broadcaster Vin Scully and scientists Richard Garwin and Margaret Hamilton.
Mr Obama said every recipient had touched him in a "very powerful, personal way".
In his citation, Hanks was described as an actor who had "allowed us to see ourselves, not only as we are but as we aspire to be" and, in a reference to his Toy Story character Woody, as a star who had "inspired a new generation of young people to reach for the sky".
Fellow Oscar winner De Niro was praised for his "legendary" film career and described as "one of America's most revered and influential artists".
Lauded as "America's rock 'n' roll laureate and New Jersey's greatest ambassador", there were customary cheers of "Bruce" as The Boss received his award on stage.
"There's a place for everyone in Bruce Springsteen's America," his citation said.
As she received her medal from Mr Obama, singer Diana Ross, who "helped create the sound of Motown with her iconic voice", was told she "still reigns Supreme".
And a tearful DeGeneres was praised as someone who had shown how "a single individual can make the world a more fun, more open, more loving place".
She later posted a video of a "mannequin challenge" inside the White House, followed by a selfie with her wife Portia de Rossi.
Closing the ceremony, Mr Obama said the recipients were people who made America special, adding: "This is what makes us the greatest nation on Earth."
The award is presented to people "who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavours".
Previous recipients honoured by Mr Obama include Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, Meryl Streep and Stevie Wonder.