It took leaving "American Idol" for Simon Cowell to show his softer side.
On Wednesday's season finale _ his final appearance on the hit Fox show _ Cowell got emotional, warmly thanking his colleagues and fans.
"I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the support, the fun and your sense of humor," he said. "That's what's been the best part."
"It's been a blast," he continued. "Thank you."
The caustic judge was feted in film and in song during the star-studded show, which saw shy paint clerk Lee DeWyze take the "Idol" title.
There was a montage of Cowell's 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 the departing judge, 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 said.
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 TV, even in its ninth season and with sliding viewership _ and whose future is clouded by his departure.
He was so colorful and biting in his criticism that it felt like a bracing slap in the face of the performers, viewers and social convention. Brits such as Cowell may be accustomed to candor but Americans tend to err on the side of cheery positive reinforcement (exhibit A: most utterances by Abdul) and fluff (Randy Jackson's repetitive "Yo!").
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.
"He'll be missed," said singer Michael McDonald, who performed on Wednesday's show. "He's been such an iconic part of the show but also a driving force in the whole idea of the show. He personifies what separates this show from 'Star Search' and all the ones that came before it."
Although viewers had a "love-hate" relationship with Cowell, "they knew he was the real deal, telling shaky contestants what they needed to hear," said Tim Brooks, a TV historian and former network executive.
Wednesday's tributes poked fun at Cowell's penchant for snug T-shirts ("The only way your shirts could be tighter is if Randy was in there with you," Cook said) and his snooty attitude.
One video clip showed him professing his love to his own reflection.
"He was a flirt, but his hands usually ended up on his own chest," Abdul said.
Comedian Ricky Gervais appeared via satellite in Cowell's honor. After joking that the 58-year-old judge should return to his old job as a lap-dancer, he called Cowell "the kingmaker."
"You have taken ordinary people's dreams and made those dreams a reality," Gervais said. "You've produced some of the biggest singing stars of a generation, and you only take 80%" of their earnings.
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 $36 million 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 a popular U.K. talent show, "The X Factor," a version of which is coming to Fox with Cowell as judge and executive producer. He's also a producer for NBC's "America's Got Talent."
On the music side, he's scored hits with singers including Leona Lewis, one of his U.K. talent show finds.
Cowell believes in "not changing who you are, but taking what you're good at and making it better," said DeWyze, 24, of Mount Prospect, Ill.
A loving film tribute set to Frank Sinatra's "My Way" showed Cowell through the "Idol" seasons: Goofing around with his fellow judges, insulting singers and greeting his fans and foes.
"I've had the best 10 years of my life," he said. "So I genuinely mean this: Thank you and I'm going to miss you."
Fox is a unit of News Corp.
EDITOR'S NOTE _ Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at lelber(at)ap.org
AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen contributed to this story.