Bill Cosby will be awarded the top U.S. comedy prize from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for his groundbreaking career.

The centre announced Wednesday that Cosby, 71, will be honoured in the fall with the 12th annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Some of the biggest names in comedy will salute Cosby on stage in Washington on Oct. 26.

Cosby said in a statement accepting the award that his mother read Twain’s famous stories to him as a child, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

“I would like to apologize to Mr. Twain for falling asleep hundreds of times, but he should understand that I was only four,” Cosby said.

Still, he said several of Twain’s stories inspired his work, including How to Tell a Story and The Mysterious Stranger.

“Over the course of his extensive career as a standup comedian, writer, actor, and social activist, Bill Cosby has earned countless accolades for his groundbreaking brand of humour,” said Kennedy Center Chairman Stephen Schwarzman.

Perhaps best known as the star and producer of The Cosby Show during the 1980s, the Philadelphia native started his career as a standup comedian in nightclubs. He caught the eye of TV producers and landed a role in the I Spy series in the 1960s, which broke new ground by casting a black man and a white man as equals.

He went on to earn master’s and doctorate degrees in education and has been a leading voice on race.

Cosby’s proven to be one of America’s most popular entertainers. Nine of Cosby’s comedy albums have been certified gold, and six went platinum on recording industry charts.

In 1998, Cosby was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors and was recognized with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour in the U.S., in 2002.

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