Mark J. Terrill/AP
Stephen M. Silverman
January 30, 2011 09:25 PM

The Screen Actors Guild honored Ernest Borgnine with its Life Achievement Award – and he honored the acting profession right back.

“There are millions of those around the world who would love to be in our shoes,” Borgnine, 94, told the crowd in L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium, after Morgan Freeman presented him his award.

Calling acting a “privilege,” Borgnine added, “I hope we will never let our dedication to our craft fail, and we will always give our best to our profession.”

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The actor, who tells new acquaintances to call him Ernie, was christened Ermes Effron Borgnine in Hamden, Conn., where his father was a metallurgist.

His mother, an Italian countess, took him to live in Italy as a child, but he returned in time to graduate from high school in New Haven, PEOPLE reported in 1981.

He joined the Navy in 1935, serving for 10 years, and left with plans to study refrigeration on the GI Bill. But he switched to acting when his mother reminded him, “You always loved to make a fool out of yourself. I was sitting at the kitchen table and I saw this light. No kidding. It sounds crazy. And 10 years later, I had Grace Kelly handing me an Academy Award.”

Soon after his mother’s advice, Borgnine was on Broadway (in the comedy Harvey) and TV (in Captain Video). But his reputation was established in Hollywood when he triumphed in such wildly divergent roles as Fatso Judson, the sergeant who brutalized Frank Sinatra in 1953’s Oscar-winning Best Picture From Here to Eternity, and the gentle, inarticulate, homely Bronx butcher in Marty.

The 1955 movie version of playwright Paddy Chayefsky’s sentimental comedy, first produced on TV with Rod Steiger, led to a Best Actor Oscar for Borgnine.

He won even more fans as Lt. Comdr. Quinton McHale of the ABC sitcom McHale’s Navy (which ran from 1962 to 1966), while his better-known later screen roles included those in the 1967 WWII adventure The Dirty Dozen, the 1969 Western The Wild Bunch, and as the husband of Shelley Winters’s character in the 1972 disaster flick The Poseidon Adventure.

Since then, he costarred in the mid-1980s on the action series Airwolf, and voiced the character Mermaid Man in the animated SpongeBob SquarePants. Last year, he costarred, along with Freeman, in Reds, which, at the SAG Awards ceremony, his old McHale’s costar Tim Conway called “an AARP action movie.”

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