Simon Cowell was known for being nasty and mean to aspiring singers on 'American Idol', but his final appearance on the show was a total lovefest today.
The caustic judge was feted in film and in song during the season finale.
There was a montage of his meanest insults (“It sounded like cats jumping off the Empire State Building ... just before they hit the floor”) and memorable exchanges with fellow judge Paula Abdul.
She returned to the show to pay respects to Cowell, saying their work together “brought me immeasurable joy”.
“I love all the fun we had together, I love all the laughter we shared together,” she said, adding that the show “is not going to be the same without you, but as only I can tell you, it will go on”.
Comedian Dane Cook offered a musical tribute, melding Cowell’s quips into a song.
“You have the honesty of Abe Lincoln and the charm of the guy who shot him,” Cook quipped.
Cowell said he felt more emotional than he had anticipated on his final 'Idol' episode.
“I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the support, the fun and your sense of humour,” he said. “That’s what’s been the best part.”
“It’s been a blast. Thank you.”
Then he hugged host Ryan Seacrest and kissed Abdul on the head.
Cowell was a man of few words as an 'American Idol' judge, but they were choice.
What he said helped turn a singing contest into a pop-culture force that dominates American TV, even in its ninth season and with sliding viewership - and whose future is clouded by his departure after today’s season finale.
Cowell was so colourful and biting in his criticism that it felt like a bracing slap in the face of the performers, viewers and social convention.
Most importantly, the music industry veteran was authoritative and mostly on target.
With the intimidating hauteur of a snobbish wine steward, he steered viewers to the proper assessment of contestants.
“You sucked the soul out of that song,” Cowell told Andrew Garcia after his performance this season of Marvin Gaye’s 'Heard It Through the Grapevine'.
“It was like a musical, the bad part of the musical,” he said to Didi Benami after she tackled Linda Ronstadt’s 'You’re No Good'.
He was key to the show’s early success, said Tim Brooks, a TV historian and former network executive.
“His sarcastic – but knowledgeable – put-downs lifted the show from the traditional ’Star Search’ mould to something genuinely new on television, a talent show where not only was the competition fierce and the standards high but the judges were part of the entertainment,” he said.
Although viewers had a “love-hate” relationship with Cowell, Mr Brooks said, “they knew he was the real deal, telling shaky contestants what they needed to hear.”
Throughout the series, Cowell scored with his “understanding of the music industry, his understanding of what it takes to be an artist,” said industry analyst Shari Ann Brill.
Cowell, in turn, has been richly rewarded, making a reported £25m (€29.42m) a year for his work on Idol and founding his own TV empire.
After serving as a judge on British media mogul Simon Fuller’s 'Pop Idol' and helping sell the concept to Fox, Cowell went on to create 'The X Factor', a version of which is coming to Fox with Cowell as judge and executive producer. He is also a producer for NBC’s 'America’s Got Talent'.
On the music side, he has scored hits with singers including Leona Lewis.