“I wouldn’t know what it would mean not to have her by my side,” Denzel Washington told PEOPLE, praising his wife Pauletta
While being honored with the American Film Institute’s life achievement award on Thursday night, the Oscar-winning actor, 64, shared a touching tribute to his longtime love, who attended the event alongside two of their adult children, Malcom, 28, and Katia Washington, 31.
Praising Pauletta as the “most important person in my life,” Denzel quipped that the pair “were nine when we got together.”
“40 years,” he continued, reflecting on their enduring romance. “40 years of sacrifice. 40 years of forgiveness. She taught me about faith, spirituality, love, real love, unwavering love, in spite of myself.”
“I would not be alive without Pauletta Washington,” he added. “I wouldn’t survive.”
Going on to praise Pauletta’s many talents, which include graduating from Juilliard and being a “great” musician and singer, Denzel asked the crowd to “stand up” and give his wife some applause.
Clearly touched by the moment, Pauletta, who was sitting next to Julia Roberts, had a big smile on her face, as she held her hands up to her heart and looked towards her husband.
During his time onstage, the actor also gave a sweet shoutout to the couple’s children, calling them “our greatest production.”
In a touching echo of his remarks onstage, the actor opened up to PEOPLE on the red carpet about how much having Pauletta’s support throughout his his career has meant.
“I wouldn’t know what it would mean not to have her by my side,” he shared, less than a month before the couple are set to celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary.
During the emotional evening, a number of the actor’s peers and collaborators took to the stage to share their own heartfelt tributes, including Roberts, who starred in the 1993 film The Pelican Brief alongside the actor.
“I met Denzel Washington over half of my life ago,” she remarked. “Working with Denzel, I had really never seen anything like it, honestly. It was like working as I imagined, with wheels. People screaming, women fainting in the street. I am amazed that I was never trampled in the crowds.”
“But what I remember so well as meeting Pauletta and all your kids and seeing how you valued your family, your home life above all else,” she continued. “I know it takes a lot of hard work but you and Pauletta made it look like a dream to me, and now I live my life with those same values. The two of you inspired me then and continue to inspire me to this day.”
Shortly after celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary last June, Washington opened up to PEOPLE about the secret to their lasting love.
“I do what I’m told. I keep my mouth shut,” he joked, before praising his wife for helping make their house a home.
“The difference between a house and a home, it’s a big difference. You can buy a house, but that doesn’t make it a home – and not to say a man can’t make a home a home, but my wife has made our house a home, and raised these beautiful kids and protected them and sacrificed for them, she did the heavy-lifting,” he shared.