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

Cary Grant as Charlie Chaplin
© Bert Stern
Cary Grant as Charlie Chaplin.

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.

Bert Stern—LIFE Magazine

Bert Stern—LIFE Magazine

Best known for his iconic “Last Sitting” photographs of Marilyn Monroe, taken six short weeks before her death, Stern photographed the world’s most beautiful women—Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, Liz Taylor, Bridget Bardot—and some of Hollywood’s most charismatic leading men, like Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando and Richard Burton.

But long before he made those iconic images, he was an ideas man, a pioneer in the Golden Age of advertising. In the early 1950s, Stern conceived and executed photographic concepts that, for the first time, made advertising as compelling, refined and beautiful as any editorial page.

By the time the photographs in this gallery were made for LIFE, Stern was at the height of his fame a celebrity in his own right. He made commercials, shot covers for the world’s most prestigious magazines and more. Stern was seemingly capable of anything.

In a revealing 2013 documentary, Bert Stern: Original Mad Man, Stern tells his compelling and extraordinary story—of his passions and obsessions, his successes and his failings, and the stories behind of some of the most remarkable and iconic images of the age.

Bert Stern is living proof, if ever proof was needed, that they really don’t make them like they used to.

— Phil Bicker is a Senior Photo Editor for TIME


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