The star of TV's Sharpe series was among those given gold awards on Wednesday night for their achievements since leaving further education.
The 47-year-old from Sheffield was nominated by Rotherham college of arts and technology, where he began training as a welder before switching to performing arts, which set him on the path to Rada and an acting career.
But the actor caused consternation recently when he disappeared from the set of his latest movie, Outlaw, only to be found in a welding shop contemplating a return to his former career.
He was joined at the ceremony by Kim Wilde, the 80s pop singer famous for her hit "Kids in America". Ms Wilde provides an excellent example of how FE offers second chances: she began a gardening career after training at Capel Manor college near London. Marlon Devonish, part of the 100m relay team which won golds at the Olympics in Athens, also won an award. He studied for an advanced GNVQ at Henley college in Coventry while training for his athletics career.
Meanwhile, Barnsley college, already celebrating the success of former music students and chart-toppers the Arctic Monkeys, nominated another musical success story. Kate Rusby studied drama at the college before her singing career took off. Now 31, she has been nominated for the Mercury music prize and had a top 10 single this year, a duet with Ronan Keating called "All Over Again".
Successful former students outside the public eye were also recognised.
Last year's Plumber of the Year, Mario Martin, picked up a gold award.
Another award went to Kate Jones, who left Worcester college of technology to manage billions of pounds in pension schemes for Barclays. The winners were presented with trophies designed by an FE student.