Bill Cosby is the winner of the city's 2010 Marian Anderson Award, given to prominent artists who have achieved distinction for their humanitarian work.

The Philadelphia-born Cosby, 72, is a much-decorated comedian, actor, and social activist, with nine Grammys, three Emmys, a Kennedy Center Honor, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. This year, he received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

In the announcement at the Sofitel hotel yesterday, Mayor Nutter called Cosby "a comedian whose gentle humor . . . pioneered a path forward for African American artists." Afterward, he called Cosby "wonderfully funny but also serious about issues relating to children and family. He says what's on his mind. I'd love to be at that stage - where you say what's on your mind and say, 'Deal with it.' "

The awards gala and fund-raiser, April 6 at the Kimmel Center, will be star-studded affairs; the list of luminaries will be announced in January. Awards committee chairwoman Pamela Browner White, senior vice president of the Eagles, said: "We have some acts that are going to knock your socks off."

Not present at the announcement, Cosby issued a statement: "I am humbled. The clarity of viewing racism from Marian Anderson's DAR rejection proves that racism is a waste of time, precious time."

He was referring to the Philadelphia-born contralto who is the namesake of the award. The Daughters of the American Revolution barred her from performing before an integrated audience at Constitution Hall in Washington. That led to Anderson's celebrated concert at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939, making her a central figure in the U.S. civil-rights struggle.

For the last 45 years, Cosby has been one of the most popular entertainment figures in the world. Born in Germantown, he served in the Navy and participated in football and track at Temple in 1961-62 before leaving to begin his comedy career. (He'd get his bachelor's from Temple later, on the basis of lifetime experience.) He was a hit in his first national TV appearance on The Tonight Show in 1963, and his first comedy album, 1964's Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow . . . Right? began a string of hit recordings.

Wherever he went in the entertainment world, Cosby broke barriers. He became the first African American to costar in a TV series when in 1965 he was paired with Robert Culp in the espionage show I Spy on NBC. Cosby won three Emmys for best actor, playing Alexander Scott to Culp's Kelly Robinson.

His self-created shows brought his greatest fame. His Saturday morning kids' show Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids ran in some form from 1972 to 1984. His biggest success came with The Cosby Show (1984-92). Its gentle, knowing depiction of an affluent African American family made it the most popular sitcom in history to that time.

Cosby received a master's degree (1972) and a doctorate (1976) in education from the University of Massachusetts; his thesis was based on his educational work with the Fat Albert series.

Cosby supported many social causes and events, both local and national, throughout his career, focusing on education, often paired with parenting issues. At a Sept. 3 kickoff of an effort titled Mission: Education in Olney, for example, he said: "We're asking those of you responsible for the child to make sure that the child gets to the school, eats properly, and does his or her homework. . . . [W]e're not raising them to go out on the street corner and hang out with the Bloods and the Crips."

His frequent criticism of what he saw as bad parenting and ignorant youth continues to spark controversy. His May 2004 speech to the NAACP on the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision aroused heated debate, with its blistering attack on parenting and social culture among African Americans.

Critics ranging from academic Michael Eric Dyson to hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons called him unfair to an already-oppressed people; Juan Williams and John McWhorter hailed his remarks as necessary and invigorating.

In 2005, Cosby encountered controversy again when Andrea Constand, a former Temple University employee, filed a civil lawsuit accusing him of sexual improprieties. In November 2006, lawyers for both sides issued a statement saying Cosby and Constand "have resolved their differences, and, therefore, the litigation has been dismissed pursuant to local court rule."

Cosby is the second Philadelphia-born recipient of the Marian Anderson Award, after 2007 winner Richard Gere. Other awardees include Harry Belafonte (1998), Gregory Peck (1999), Elizabeth Taylor (2000), Quincy Jones (2001), Danny Glover (2002), Oprah Winfrey (2003), Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis (2005), and Maya Angelou and Norman Lear (2008). No awards were given in 2004 or 2009.

Contact staff writer John Timpane at 215-854-4406, jt@phillynews.com, or twitter.com/jtimpane.