Since the advent of Gary Cooper no screen hero has said ‘Shucks!’ with more conviction than Gregory Peck, who is sometimes called, because of his homespun look, ‘the Lincoln of Beverly Hills.’
So went the editor’s note about Peck’s 1947 LIFE cover, cementing in the minds of readers—if there were any for whom it wasn’t already cemented—that he was the handsome, wholesome hero at the heart of the Hollywood dream. He was still 15 years away from the role that would win him an Oscar and solidify his legacy as an exemplar of moral decency (Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird), but he was already as respected as he was beloved.
The actor, born Eldred Gregory Peck 100 years ago on April 5, 1916, began his career in the theater in the early 1940s, exempted from the draft thanks to a back injury. Though he was often penniless during those years and sometimes slept on the street, the launching of his film career brought swift success. After releasing his first movie, Days of Glory, in 1944, he went on to receive four Academy Award nominations in the next five years. His fifth would be the one he finally took home.
Though the pages of LIFE are filled with glowing reviews of Peck’s performances, the legacy he left behind transcends the bounds of stage and screen. Peck, who died in 2003, is remembered as every bit the decent soul as his version of Atticus Finch was. As TIME’s late film critic Richard Corliss wrote in his obituary for the actor:
It’s dangerous to confuse an actor with his movie roles. But by all accounts the reel and the real Gregory Peck were close kin. He was a model of probity, a loyal friend to colleagues in distress, a father confessor to the Hollywood community. He chaired the National Society of This, the American Academy of That. He was laden with official honors: Lyndon Johnson gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom; Richard Nixon put him on his Enemies List. Peck received perhaps his sweetest laurel last week when the reclusive [Harper] Lee, on hearing of his death, said, “Gregory Peck was a beautiful man. Atticus Finch gave him the opportunity to play himself.”
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.