TIME Actors

When the Stars Were Bright: Bert Stern’s Celebrity Portraits

In tribute to the great Bert Stern, who died on Tuesday in New York, LIFE features photos he made of actors taking on roles made famous by their heroes. (Pictured: Paul Newman as Douglas Fairbanks.)

NOTE: Bert Stern died on June 25, 2013, at his home in Manhattan. He was 83. This gallery posted to LIFE.com in March 2013. RIP, Bert.

They don’t make them like they used to. That assertion, although often colored by a rose-tinted nostalgia, seems to hold some genuine truth nowadays, when celebrities are not only a dime a dozen, but are so often seemingly manufactured overnight. In fact, in most cases, it’s difficult to even remember what these people are famous for. But who would think that back in the 1960s, the stars of that defining era—stars whom we continue to look back on with wonder—would themselves entertain that very same thought?

The images shown here, taken by legendary photographer Bert Stern for a story that ran in the Dec. 20, 1963, issue of LIFE, depict some of the most prominent actors of the day as they take on the roles of their dream performers. The wonderfully playful (yet somehow near-reverent) series of portraits is testament to the fact that each and every generation grows up with its own heroes. Witness the debonair Cary Grant embodying an unlikely, yet totally convincing, impersonation of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, or Paul Newman’s gleeful transformation into the swashbuckling matinee idol, Douglas Fairbanks.

While the movie studios had created idols since the days of silent films, a cover of LIFE magazine could make all the difference. And a photographer with a strong relationship with a magazine wielded a lot of influence. In fact, the ’60s saw the birth of the photographer as hero, and Bert Stern was the archetype of this new figure. Alongside Penn and Avedon, he was one of the most respected and sought-after fashion, portrait and advertising photographers of the era.