Joel Grey and producer Harvey Weinstein were honored at the Fred and Adele Astaire Awards in New York City

By Sara Hammel
June 02, 2015 09:30 AM
Rahav Segev/WireImage

Jennifer Grey was overcome with emotion Monday night as she presented her father, legendary performer Joel Grey, with a prestigious award.

The 55-year-old actress, who helped honor her dad with the Douglas Watt Lifetime Achievement Award at the 33rd Annual Fred & Adele Astaire Awards in New York City, said she wasn’t expecting the sudden tearful reaction she had onstage.

“I didn’t expect to feel like that,” Jennifer, choking up, told the packed audience at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. “I feel like Liza [Minnelli], all gaspy and stuff!”

She began to speak but immediately had to pause. “Just give me a moment, sorry about that,” she said, as the crowd broke out in applause.

The Dirty Dancing star went on to share her favorite childhood memories “hanging out backstage with my dad at matinees” during his Broadway show Cabaret, the musical that ultimately won him a film role and an Oscar.

“I’m so inspired by my dad. By the sheer breadth of his work, his love of life,” she said, adding, “As someone who has clung to his every move my entire life his incredible career only pales in comparison to the accomplishment of how he lives his life, his gigantic heart. This world is just markedly better for him being here.”

Joel, 83, told PEOPLE before the show that receiving the accolade was special simply because his daughter was with him.

“It’s just fun having my daughter here. That’s the best part, because who knew with both of our careers and she being so busy and a mom and all that, the fact that she’s here at this moment without [us having tried to plan it] neither one of us knew!”

“We couldn’t have planned it,” Jennifer agreed.

Joel has had a momentous year, including taking the step in January to be open with fans about his sexual orientation and his life as a gay man, and he says sharing his story (in a PEOPLE profile) was the right decision. “Everybody has been so positive and up, and seemed to like the story,” he said. Asked if Hollywood – particularly young Hollywood – had reached out to show support, he added, “Yeah. It was a good thing.”

As Jennifer presented his honor, Joel got a standing ovation and she jumped up and down with excitement before hugging him. Joel then recalled his origins as a struggling, untrained dancer before he was cast in Cabaret. He also closed with a powerful reading of a long list of everyone he credits for helping him in his career.

He told the audience, “I just get up in the morning, and I think, what’s going to happen today? And most days are very good days. But I’m reminded because I am so in love with dance.”