Hollywood is a merciless place. It can elevate or crush stars at whim, and performers are only as good as their last project. But even if you can ride the wave to the top, you can’t always stay there. Fame is a powerful drug, and even those who give it up more often than not come crawling back. But there are some who have given up Hollywood cold turkey at the height of their popularity, and have never looked back. Here are 10 of the most popular entertainers ever to reach the top of stardom and walk away from it.
Daniel Day-Lewis, the ultimate method actor, is the most recent retiree at the top of his form; he is also the only three-time Oscar winner for Best Actor. Famous for his roles in “Lincoln,” “My Left Foot,” and “The Last of the Mohicans,” his announcement in 2017 that “Phantom Thread” would be his final film was surprising, but hardly shocking. He had quit before, in a manner of speaking, going into semi-retirement after 1997’s “The Boxer.” He spent some years in Italy and took up shoemaking as a hobby, returning to film in Martin Scoresese’s “Gangs of New York” (2002). Whether or not this retirement is as permanent as the previous one remains to be seen.
When people talk about retirement, one imagines it happening after many years of service. Connery’s career is no exception. Playing action heroes almost to the very last film, he finally gave up the industry after the disastrous “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” flopped at the box office in 2003. Connery himself said he was retiring because he didn’t like the way Hollywood was running things (or ruining them, in his opinion.) It would have been nice for him to leave on a high note but perhaps it’s for the best that he be remembered for the one role he could never top, that of James Bond.
This prolific actor had a career that spanned half a century, and netted him two Oscars, one for Best Actor and one for Best Supporting Actor. Famous for such diverse roles as Popeye Doyle in “The French Connection” and Lex Luthor in the “Superman” films opposite Christopher Reeve, he finally decided in 2004 to get away from the cameras and set himself down behind a computer, writing bestselling historical fiction in every genre imaginable, from thrillers to mysteries to westerns. How long until one of these is made into a movie? If it is, he swears he’s not interested in being in it. His last film role was in 2004, and in 2008 he announced he had officially retired from acting.
Not to be confused with Jackie Gleason, the star of the classic television show “The Honeymooners,” this actor was on a totally different classic television show: for 3 years he was the terrible boy-king Joffrey Baratheon on HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Surprisingly enough, that was his last role; he gave up acting, saying that it just wasn’t fun anymore. He studied philosophy and theology at a leading Irish university and told a newspaper that “the lifestyle that comes along with being an actor in a successful TV show isn’t something I gravitate towards.” Considering how many child stars end up like King Joffrey – pretty much destroying themselves – he joins the ranks of veterinarian Peter Ostrum (Charlie from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”), college professor Danny Lloyd (Danny from “The Shining”), and lawyer Charlie Korsmo (Jack in Steven Spielberg’s “Hook,”) in the “Successful One and Done” club.
Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen
The Olsen twins ruled television on the hit ’80s/’90s sitcom “Full House” as a cheeky little toddler Michelle Tanner (as is the custom in Hollywood it’s not uncommon to hire twins to switch off playing one role), and then parlayed that fame into a hit series of direct-to-video adventures. As teenagers they had fashion dolls made and named for them and were the brand of clothing, shoes, and accessories marketed to their peers. But when they turned 18 they went into another high pressure industry — fashion design. They have parlayed their early video fortune into a marketing empire that has won fashion awards around the world. Needless to say when the reboot “Fuller House” was coming together, the twins were the only original members not to agree to return, and their shared character Michelle has been handwaved off the show, the reason being that she’s “too busy running a fashion empire.” Their last major film was 2004’s “New York Minute,” a box office bomb.
Famous (erroneously) for saying “I want to be alone,” she had a two-decade career in films in the early 20th century, both in silent films and in “talkies.” Her retirement at age 35 was shocking, but not unexpected — even then, women of a certain age were not finding work in Hollywood and she had suffered a box office disaster. She literally left Hollywood in 1951, moving to a New York apartment where she lived the rest of her life, amassing a million dollar art collection and shooing away reporters, fans, and anyone else that wasn’t already her friend. While Garbo was not the inspiration for Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” she was offered the role in the original film, along with other silent film alumni such as Mary Pickford — but of course she turned it down.
Yes, that Cary Grant, one of the biggest stars of classic Hollywood. Believe it or not, he walked away even though he was not only still successful, but considered one of the greats (second only to Humphrey Bogart in some critic circles). But he left pictures in 1966 to, surprisingly enough, raise his newborn daughter Jennifer, born when Grant was already 62. Alfred Hitchcock, who had directed him the thriller “North by Northwest,” tried to get him back in front of the camera, to no avail. He went into the business world, lending his name to the board of directors of Fabergé and MGM Grand, and only once stood on stage again, to accept a Lifetime Achievement Oscar. Ironically enough, the daughter he left Hollywood to raise (Jennifer Grant) grew up to become an actor herself.
He’s in some of your favorite comedy films: “Honey I Shrunk The Kids,” “Little Shop Of Horrors,” “Ghostbusters,” and “Spaceballs,” to name a few. From his stint on the hit comedy show “SCTV” to the big screen, he was riding the Hollywood wave at its peak… until tragedy struck in 1991 and he was suddenly a widower with two young children. Rather than turn that into a sitcom (or worse, a reality television show) or leaving them to be cared for while he continued acting, he made the conscious choice to leave Hollywood to be a parent. At first he said it was a hiatus, a break from acting, but “the little bit of a break turned into a longer break, and then I found that I really didn’t miss it.” He’s not left entertainment entirely, still recording comedy albums and lending his voice to some animated projects, but he has no ambition to step in front of a camera again.
The biggest star of early Hollywood was a precocious child with curly hair and a dimpled chin. During a three-year period in the 1930s she made 13 movies, all of them box office hits, but then tragedy struck – she started to age, and her popularity faded, and she began to get roles that demoted her to love interest. In 1945 she married a fellow star, John Agar, but that ended badly when he turned out to be an abusive, jealous hack who was enraged to be seen as “Shirley Temple’s husband.” She even starred in a disastrous film opposite Ronald Reagan, “That Hagen Girl,” that was pretty creepy in its depiction of the young woman and the older man. Fed up with acting, she quite at age 22 in 1950, got married and became Shirley Temple Black. Politically active in the Republican Party, she ran unsuccessfully for state office in California and later became involved in the United Nations and the diplomatic service. She was twice made an ambassador, first to Ghana, then to the former nation Czechoslovakia. She died in 2014 of COPD, which was due to her lifelong smoking habit—which she said she hid from her fans her whole life, so as to not set a bad example.