An old axiom says fame is fickle. So is age. Both proverbs hold true in Hollywood, with its youth-obsessed culture always on the lookout for a fresh face to exploit. That makes conquering the movie biz all the more impressive for the handful of actors who actually do it.
How perplexing then that some actors become big names in showbiz only to give it all up for a quiet life. There again, given the grueling slog of the business, perhaps it should come as no surprise. We here at Screen Rant decided to profile 15 performers who left the business in their prime. For that reason, you’ll not find names like Jack Nicholson or Gene Hackmen—two actors who retired because of health and age—listed here. No, the actors on this list had nothing that demanded retirement. Rather, they just chose to stay home one day, and rarely have come back since.
Peel your eyes, take a breath, and get ready for some heartbreak. Here come 15 Stars Who Turned Their Back On Hollywood!
15 Phoebe Cates
Phoebe Cates became a rising star in her teens. After working as a model and a dancer, she studied at the prestigious Julliard School and decided to transition to acting. She began scoring good parts almost right away, including a role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. A topless pool scene in that film didn’t just make her into a sex symbol; it made her into one of the sex symbols of cinema, and the scene ranks alongside Marilyn Monroe’s subway skirt-blowing in The Seven Year Itch as one of the most titillating ever.
Following Fast Times, Cates had another hit with Gremlins, playing the protagonist's girlfriend. Other similar roles followed, and Cates began to get frustrated with the lack of good parts coming her way. After headlining the 1991 cult comedy Drop Dead Fred, she began to lower her profile. She officially retired from acting in 1994 to focus on family life, playing mom to her children with husband/fellow actor Kevin Kline. She did make one brief return to acting in 2001 opposite Kline for director/star/best friend Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Anniversary Party, a semi-improvised film. Cates’ turn proved she’d lost none of her acting talent or charisma, and raised hopes that she might once again grace the screen with her presence full time.
14 Shelley Duvall
Slack-jawed viewers gawking at Shelley Duvall’s recent appearance on Dr. Phil do a great disservice to the actress—they overlook her considerable talent and fascinating career as a performer. Born in Texas, Duvall hit it big when she caught the eye of acclaimed director Robert Altman, who convinced her to become an actress. Her first part came in Altman’s Brewster McCloud, playing Bud Cort’s love interest. Duvall’s quirky screen presence made her a natural performer, and she became a favorite of director Altman, who cast her in six films throughout her career, including Nashville and 3 Women. Her turn in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining became the stuff of legend: her haggard, tormented performance became one of the most praised, reviled, parodied, and iconic performances in film history.
Duvall became a television producer with Faerie Tale Theatre, the long-running HBO fantasy anthology. She continued to act in lackluster fare throughout the 1990s before retiring in 2002. Her recent Dr. Phil interview revealed Duvall as living in Texas and suffering from undisclosed mental illness. Here’s hoping, despite the exploitive nature of her interview, that she gets real treatment.
13 Jaye Davidson
Jaye Davidson had one of the most talked about film debuts in history-- he played the “twist” character in Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game. Prior to his foray into acting, Davidson worked odd jobs while trying to start a career as a fashion designer. A chance meeting at a party connected him with Jordan, who asked him to play the role of Dil, Stephen Rea’s obsession in The Crying Game. Davidson’s androgynous look caused a stir, as did his natural screen presence. He scored an Oscar nomination for his work.
Following The Crying Game, Davidson became an overnight celebrity and one of the most talked about performers in Hollywood— a distinction he hated. He's always been forthright about having taken his role in Crying Game for the money, and his intentions to retire from acting. Roland Emmerich nevertheless convinced him to take one more role—that of the evil alien Ra in Stargate. Davidson’s $1 million salary also helped convince him to take the part, though after completing the shoot, he left Hollywood behind for good. He returned to England, where he continued to work in fashion as a model and designer.
12 Tom Hulce
Michigan native Tom Hulce studied acting at a young age, attending the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy as a teenager. He began working on stage in his 20s, playing opposite Anthony Perkins in an acclaimed production of Equus on Broadway. Film work followed, including his auspicious debut as a frat boy in the classic comedy National Lampoon’s Animal House. Other, less impressive roles followed until Hulce beat out a number of other “name” actors to score the title role in Amadeus. Hulce’s performance as Mozart earned wide acclaim and an Oscar nomination for the actor.
Following Amadeus, Hulce continued to work in television and film, picking up an Emmy for his work in the telefilm The Heidi Chronicles. He also scored a bonafide blockbuster, providing the voice for the title character in Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. By the late '90s, he tended to gravitate more toward stage work, acting as both an actor and producer in Broadway shows. He won a Tony Award for producing the musical Spring Awakening, and garnered another hit with the rock opera American Idiot, based on the Green Day album. Hulce hasn’t appeared in a film since his cameo in Jumper in 2008, forsaking Hollywood for his acclaimed stage career.
11 Mary Badham
The much younger sister of acclaimed director John Badham, Mary Badham made her acting debut in 1962 in To Kill a Mockingbird. As an Alabama native, Badham was an inspired choice for the role of Scout, the precocious child of Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch. Her natural acting instincts helped too, and To Kill a Mockingbird became a wild success upon release. That success included Badham nabbing an Oscar nomination for her performance. At the time, she became the youngest performer ever nominated for the Supporting Actress Award at age 10. It also says something that her fellow nominees included Angela Lansbury, Patty Duke, Shirley Knight, and Thelma Ritter—one of the toughest competitions for the award in history.
Badham lost the Oscar to Patty Duke, and took on only a handful of lackluster roles afterword. Despite nuemrous offers, she turned her back on Hollywood to live a quiet life as an art restorer and college administrator. After drifting into obscurity, director Cameron Watson finally convinced Badham to take on one more role in the indie drama Our Very Own. She’s since retired again, though has not ruled out taking on other roles in the future.
10 Grace Kelly
From Hollywood royalty to actual royalty, Grace Kelly had one of the most intriguing and lauded careers as an actress. Hailing from Philadelphia, Kelly first worked as a model and dancer while studying acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. A series of television roles followed, until she caught the eye of actor Gary Cooper, who wanted her for his love interest in High Noon. As directed by Fred Zinnamenn, the film became a screen classic, and is often hailed as the best western ever.
After High Noon, Kelly continued to gain notice for her work in subsequent movies. She won an Oscar— somewhat controversially— in 1954 for her performance in The Country Girl over favorite Judy Garland, and the results of the Academy voting process remain contested to this day. Kelly also became a favorite of director Alfred Hitchcock, who cast her in his classic films Dial M for Murder and Rear Window. Not long after, she first met Prince Rainier of Monaco, and the two began a surreptitious courtship. They married in 1956, and Kelly officially said goodbye to acting to perform her duties as Princess Grace of Monaco. A sudden stroke in 1982 while driving caused Kelly to veer off a cliff. She died of her injuries, leaving behind her husband, three children, and one of the most interesting careers in Hollywood history.
9 Glenda Jackson
British-born Glenda Jackson first studied acting as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1960s. A series of acclaimed turns on stage and in lower-profile films helped her gain a reputation as a rising star, and in 1969, eccentric director Ken Russell cast her in the lead in his film Women in Love. Jackson’s performance earned wide praise, and she scored an Oscar for Best Actress. Her newfound success gave Jackson her pick of roles in Hollywood and in Britain, and she continued to attract rave reviews in movies like Sunday, Bloody Sunday and in the British miniseries Elizabeth R, for which she picked up two Emmys.
Jackson won a second Oscar for A Touch of Class, and continued to work as one of the highest-profile actors of the 1970s. She began to find parts wanting, however, and acquiesced to stage work in the 1980s. By the ‘90s, however, she found acting wanting, and officially retired to pursue a political career. Jackson became a member of the British House of Commons in 1992, and maintained one of the highest profiles of any Brit politician thanks to her celebrity status. She retired from politics in 2015, citing her advanced age, and then made an acclaimed return to the stage in December 2016 in a London production of King Lear… playing the title role.
8 Doris Day
First things first: let’s clear up one common misconception. Doris Day is not dead.
That may come as a shock to some people, who know her only from her work in frothy musicals and light comedies in the 1950s. Day began her career as a radio performer and singer in the 1940s. Her work on the radio earned her a large following, and eventually Hollywood took notice. Day began appearing in films in 1941, though she didn’t win star parts until 1947 with her leading role in Romance on the High Seas. Warner Bros. signed her to a studio contract, and set about making Day a musical star with films like Calamity Jane, Young at Heart, and Tea for Two.
Sick of playing musical roles, Day decided to focus more on stretching her dramatic range. Performances in Love Me or Leave Me and in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much earned her rave reviews, as did returns to comedy in Pillow Talk and The Pajama Game. Aging, and facing increasing financial and legal woes, Day retired from acting in 1973. She disappeared from public life in the 1980s, preferring a quiet retirement in Santa Barbara, CA. She continues to receive honors and lifetime achievement awards, though she stubbornly refuses to make any public appearances.
7 Olivia de Havilland
Speaking of actors who are not dead, 100-year-old Olivia de Havilland, winner of two Academy Awards and perhaps best known as the woman who isn’t Vivian Leigh in Gone with the Wind is also still alive.
Olivia de Havilland began her career as a stage actress, performing in an acclaimed tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She got to repeat her performance as Hermia in a 1935 Warner Bros. film adaptation, which also scored her good reviews. That same year, she starred in the action classic Captain Blood opposite Errol Flynn, which cemented her star status. Film work continued to follow, including star parts in The Adventures of Robin Hood, and later, Gone with the Wind. de Havilland’s performance as Melanie, the best friend of Blanche, earned her unanimously positive reviews, and Gone with the Wind became the most successful film in history.
de Havilland continued to work over the next 40 years, picking up her two Oscars for her work in To Each His Own and The Heiress, before retiring in 1989. A surprise appearance at the Academy Awards in 2003 brought the house down, as have several appearances honoring the legacy of Gone with the Wind. Today she lives in Paris.
6 Joe Pesci
Joe Pesci became one of the actors of the 1990s thanks to his Oscar-winning performance in Goodfellas, as well as acclaimed turns in My Cousin Vinnie and Home Alone. He began his career working as a musician in New York and his native New Jersey. After taking a part in a low-budget crime film, he attracted the attention of young Martin Scorsese, who loved Pesci’s natural screen presence. Scorsese then cast him in Raging Bull in 1981, for which Pesci earned his first Oscar nomination.
His career took off from there, as Pesci enjoyed a string of hits that included Once Upon a Time in America, Lethal Weapon and its subsequent sequels, JFK, and Casino. By the late 1990s, however, Pesci became dissatisfied with the roles coming his way, and opted to return to music. He officially retired from acting in 1999, though has since made brief returns for his friend Robert De Niro in his film The Good Shepherd and in the indie film Love Ranch, earning positive reviews for both. His brief returns from retirement have suggested Pesci may yet get the bug to return to acting full time. If so, that would be a win for both the actor and his audience.
5 Rick Moranis
Funnyman Rick Moranis got his start on SCTV, sort of Canada’s answer to Saturday Night Live. His work on the sketch comedy show— including several dead-on impersonations— earned him wide acclaim, and Hollywood came calling in 1983. Moranis and SCTV co-star Dave Thomas reprised their acclaimed characters Bob & Doug the Canadian brothers in the big-screen comedy Strange Brew, which maintains a cult following to this day. The movie proved Moranis had charisma, and he followed up with lauded turns in Spaceballs, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, and Little Shop of Horrors (in which he also sang.) Moranis also gave a memorable and iconic performance in Ghostbusters which he also reprised in the 1989 sequel.
As the ‘90s dawned, Moranis drifted into family fare, appearing in The Flintstones as Barney as a series of Honey I Shrunk the Kids sequels. After his wife’s death from breast cancer in 1997, Moranis retired to raise his children, and has since shied away from publicity. He gave a memorable vocal performance in Disney’s Brother Bear opposite Dave Thomas, with the two performers reprising (more or less) their roles as Bob & Doug. Moranis has since maintained that he would return to film, should the right part come along.
4 Mara Wilson
Wilson became one of the most recognizable moppet actors in the 1990s thanks to her wide eyes and plucky charm. She first enchanted audiences with her work in Mrs. Doubtfire opposite Robin Williams and Sally Field. She followed up with the hit remake of Miracle on 34th Street opposite Sir Richard Attenborough, taking over the role of Susan from Natalie Wood. Her work then attracted the attention of director Danny DeVito, who cast her in the title role in his film of Matilda. Around the same time, Wilson’s mother died of cancer, which had a traumatic effect on young Mara. She quickly began to lose interest in acting.
Despite offers for various films, Wilson retired from film in 2000, preferring instead to focus on studies and stage roles. She’s also spoken frankly about her struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, which began to affect her in her teens. Despite a brief return in front of the camera with a cameo appearance in Broad City in 2016, Wilson has no plans to return to films anytime soon. She lives a low-profile life in New York today.
3 Michael Schoeffling
‘80s hunk Michael Schoeffling began his career in an unlikely way. While studying Liberal Arts in college, he attracted the attention of photographer Bruce Webber, who helped him begin a modeling career. Schoeffling landed photo spreads in magazines like GQ, which helped raise his profile. He also began to study acting around the same time. Hollywood found Schoeffling in 1984 when director John Hughes cast him as the “hunky boy” Jake in the comedy Sixteen Candles opposite Molly Ringwald, which helped him gain name recognition.
Schoeffling followed up with roles in films like Longtime Companion, Mermaids, and Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken before calling it a career. Schoeffling lost interesting in acting by the time the ‘90s rolled around, and retired in 1992. Today he lives an anonymous life as a husband and father, making handcrafted furniture. The enduring appeal of Sixteen Candles, however, occasionally prompts Schoeffling to pop up on “where are they now” type programs, and sporadic interviews.
2 Sean Connery
Scottish star Sean Connery will forever hold iconic status as the James Bond, though his career spans a much greater range than spy thrillers. He began his career in the British theater, making friends like Shelly Winters and Michael Caine, who encouraged him to focus on acting. Stage roles followed, and in 1959, Disney brought Connery to Hollywood in Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Not long after, he nabbed the role of Bond, which he repeated seven times over the course of his career.
Besides his work as Bond, Connery worked with his share of great directors— including Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg— over the course of his long career. After making several lackluster films throughout the late 1970s and ‘80s, he made something of a comeback, winning an Oscar for his role in The Untouchables in 1987. Connery remained a major star throughout the ‘90s with hits like The Rock and The Hunt for Red October before retiring in 2003, citing dissatisfaction with the business. Despite repeated attempts to lure Connery back before the camera, the actor enjoys his retirement too much. Still robust at age 86, however, Connery may yet have one final role left. We hope so anyway!
1 Audrey Hepburn
Audrey Hepburn’s slim figure and shining eyes made her one of the most distinct and delicate women to ever grace the screen. She began her work as a dancer on stage in Amsterdam and London, before attracting the attention of the French writer Collette, who cast her in the lead role of his Broadway musical Gigi. The show became a hit, and Hepburn made her Hollywood debut in 1953 in Roman Holiday for director William Wyler. Her work snagged her an Academy Award, and catapulted her to the top of the A-list. Throughout her career, she appeared in classic movies like Sabrina, My Fair Lady, The Children’s Hour, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
By the late 1960s, however, Hepburn began to lose interest in acting. She chose motherhood and her charity work with UNICEF over her career, and retired in 1968. She did, however, make occasional returns to acting in films like Robin & Marian, They All Laughed, and a cameo in Always, her final performance. She died of cancer in 1992, and remains one of the screen’s most iconic actors.
Did we leave out your favorite star? Tell us in the comments!
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