NEW YORK — It was an unlikely combination of entertainers: Bruce Springsteen singing "Thunder Road," a Marine Corps band playing taps and "Amazing Grace," Robin Williams cracking off-color jokes.
They all shared the stage Wednesday night at a star-studded Manhattan benefit for wounded U.S. service members, organized by ABC's Bob Woodruff. The newsman became a champion of the cause after he was nearly killed by a roadside bomb while working in Iraq last year.
"Stand Up for Heroes," a benefit for the Bob Woodruff Family Fund, was expected to bring in upward of $2.5 million, organizers said, including proceeds from an online auction at charityfolks.com.
"This is not a political cause," Woodruff said, kicking off the show with his wife, Lee. "Left, right, center, however you feel about this war, this is all about how we treat the wounded right here when they return."
The event, produced in partnership with the New York Comedy Festival, was emceed by Conan O'Brien, who quipped that his performance was hobbled both by the current Hollywood writer's strike ("If anyone has a joke, I'm paying cash") and the need to shift the tone to comedy after a mournful rendition of taps by the Marine Corps band. "I'm a comedian following taps!" he moaned.
Along with O'Brien and Williams, comics Lewis Black and Brian Regan did standup routines. But the highlight for the audience was Springsteen, who performed three songs and then returned to auction off his Harley-Davidson (the motorcycle went for $85,000.)
Woodruff showed virtually no signs of the serious brain injury he suffered in January 2006, when the roadside blast tore off part of his skull and sent shrapnel into his head. He spent 36 days in a medically induced coma, but since then has made a recovery viewed by many as remarkable.
The ABC newsman, who was co-anchor of "World News" for less than a month before he was hurt, says he'll never be 100 percent again, and that he still searches for words. His wife made a number of jokes about his occasional difficulty, noting that once, when they'd been waiting at home for a Verizon phone company worker, her husband had asked: "Where is that Viagra man?"
The audience included celebrities like Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central and former "Sopranos" star James Gandolfini, and a large number of military personnel and their families. One father was especially happy: his son, a Marine, was returning home the next day.
"To see New Yorkers turn out like this for the military is really touching," said Stan Pottinger, whose son, Matt, just finished a tour in Iraq's Anbar province.
The benefit was originally conceived by Caroline Hirsch, founding partner of the New York Comedy Festival, who watched an ABC News special early this year about Woodruff's recovery and the plight of other brain-injured Iraq veterans, and decided to help. Hirsch says there's been talk of making the benefit an annual event.