Sue Nicholls was close to tears as she accepted the outstanding achievement gong to a standing ovation at the British Soap Awards.
The actress, 75, has played Audrey Roberts in Coronation Street for 40 years, and she said she now gets on "better in the Weatherfield world than I do in the real world".
Sir Ian McKellen appeared briefly in a pre-recorded video message to celebrate her award, calling her "my dear Audrey".
Nicholls said her sister had warned her not to ramble or cry during her speech, or to "put the world to rights like all you actors do".
After accepting her award, she said: "I've never planned anything in my life, work-wise. I just took the jobs that came and that was lovely.
"There are so many people who I would love to thank, but I can't because it's bad enough all my gorgeous people there.
"But to go back 40 years we'd still be here in two hours. So I just want to thank not just the actors... I just love it so much.
"I get on better in the Weatherfield world than I do in the real world, to be honest. I want to thank all the studio people. I'm stuttering because I'm so nervous."
The ceremony was hosted by Phillip Schofield on Saturday night at The Lowry theatre in Salford, Greater Manchester.