Some people would do anything for 15 minutes of fame, but these stars prove that celebrity status isn’t always a dream come true. In fact, these 20 talented folks chose to walk away from it all: high-flying careers, the glitz and glam of Hollywood or even million-dollar paychecks. Some left the limelight and went looking for a quiet life; others chose a new career path entirely – but all of them quit when the going was good and left us wondering what they could have achieved if they’d just carried on a bit longer.
20. Mara Wilson
Mara Wilson, the adorable child star of ’90s blockbusters Matilda and Mrs. Doubtfire, turned her back on Hollywood at the tender age of 13 and later chose instead to make words her career. In 2012, then, the blogger and playwright gave the world a clue as to why she’d retired from Tinseltown so young, writing, “Here is something no real celebrity will ever tell you: film acting is not very fun.”
19. Bill Watterson
Cartoonist Bill Watterson pulled the plug on his hugely popular Calvin and Hobbes strip in 1995, disappointing legions of fans across the globe in the process. In the 20 years since, he has seemingly shunned the spotlight altogether, denying countless requests for autographs and interviews and only going back to the drawing board for new projects from time to time. Watterson did grant one grilling by email in 2010, though, in which he explained his actions by saying, “It’s always better to leave the party early.”
18. Syd Barrett
Former Pink Floyd member Syd Barrett was the creative linchpin in the earliest incarnation of the band and wrote several of its first hits. Barrett, though, was as troubled as he was talented, and the erratic guitarist finally quit Pink Floyd in 1968. He passed the bulk of the next 38 years in Cambridge, living in relative isolation and painting pictures until his death from pancreatic cancer in 2006.
17. J.D. Salinger
J.D. Salinger remains something of an enigma, even six years after his death. The fame afforded him after the publication of his 1951 classic The Catcher in the Rye was perhaps somewhat of a hindrance, as Salinger began to withdraw from public life soon after the book was released. Two years later, in fact, he fled to New Hampshire, where he fiercely guarded his privacy with lawsuits and a shotgun. After 1965, then, he stopped publishing altogether and remained a reclusive and secretive figure until his passing 45 years later.
16. Dorothy Parker
Dorothy Parker’s quick wit and writing talent made her a shining star of the New York literati and the queen of the Algonquin Round Table in the 1920s and ’30s. A foray into screenwriting with her second husband even netted her an Oscar nomination. It was not Parker’s work that put the buffers on her career, though, but rather her increasingly vocal left-wing politics. That outspokenness lost her several well-positioned friends, and her communist leanings eventually earned her both an FBI file and a place on the Hollywood blacklist.
15. Lindsay Lohan
Lindsay Lohan, lest we forget, was not always a professional train wreck. In fact, her time in Hollywood was off to a promising start in the late ’90s and early 2000s, with the actress winning over fans by the dozen for her roles in the likes of The Parent Trap and Mean Girls. Come 2007, though, and Lohan began to go off the rails, with a DUI followed by drug convictions and spells in both jail and rehab. In the last couple of years, then, she has attempted a comeback of sorts by acting in London’s West End – but time will tell whether her career will ever bounce back to how it once was.
14. Jerry Lee Lewis
When American rock’n’roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis arrived for his highly anticipated British tour in 1958, he dropped a bombshell on his fans: the “Great Balls of Fire” singer had, to everyone’s surprise, married his 13-year-old cousin. Lewis’ shock revelation lost him the respect of the industry and effectively killed off the levels of success he’d been experiencing up until that point, although he still records and tours to this day.
13. Greta Garbo
In 1941 a 36-year-old Greta Garbo decided to take a break from the Hollywood high life, leaving behind a glittering movie career. Still, what was ostensibly meant to be a “temporary” retirement eventually became anything but: the star of Tinseltown’s Golden Age actually spent close to 50 years hiding out in her New York apartment before her death in 1990. Proof, then, that when Garbo spoke the fabled words “I want to be alone” on screen, she really did mean it.
12. Margaret Mitchell
Margaret Mitchell published her Pulitzer Prize-winning epic Gone With the Wind in 1936, but the limelight she found with that iconic novel never suited her. In fact, Mitchell chose never to release another book during her lifetime, instead plowing her time and resources into philanthropic endeavors that included a stint in the American Red Cross during WWII. Tragically, though, in 1949 Mitchell died, aged 49, after being hit by a car – although one more work of hers, a novella written in her teen years, was published posthumously 47 years later.
11. Macaulay Culkin
By 1994 colossally cute child actor Macaulay Culkin was both a Hollywood star and the subject of a bitter legal battle. While his parents fought for custody of their famous son, the 14-year-old decided to quit acting altogether and has barely been seen on screen since – although Culkin has since taken to a music career as the frontman of Velvet Underground novelty tribute band The Pizza Underground.
10. John Hughes
Acclaimed movie director, producer and screenwriter John Hughes churned out a succession of cult classics in the ’80s and ’90s, including the beloved likes of Home Alone and The Breakfast Club. Still, that run of commercial and critical hits came to an end when Hughes’ friend John Candy died in 1994 – something by which he was deeply affected. After that, Hughes moved his family out of Hollywood and only worked behind the scenes occasionally writing and executive producing for studios before his death in 2009, aged 59.
9. Dave Chappelle
In 2006 Dave Chappelle made a shock departure from Comedy Central and his star vehicle Chappelle’s Show – not to mention a reported $50 million contract. The comedian hopped on a plane to Africa halfway through shooting season three of his show, then later moved to Ohio in a bid for a quieter life. On an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman in 2014, though, Chappelle quipped, albeit somewhat erroneously, “Technically, I never quit; I’m seven years late for work.” He has since returned to stand-up and took on a role in Spike Lee’s 2015 movie Chi-Raq.
8. Grace Kelly
Hollywood icon Grace Kelly was at the height of her movie career when she wed Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956. After her rise to royalty, though, the Rear Window star never acted again – perhaps because she never needed to. Instead, for the rest of her life Kelly devoted her time to pursuits deemed more befitting of a princess, such as charity and gardening.
7. Cat Stevens
While the 1960s and ’70s saw Cat Stevens topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, behind closed doors the singer/songwriter was becoming increasingly disillusioned with fame and fortune. After converting to Islam in 1977, then, he changed his name to Yusuf Islam and disappeared from the music scene for nearly two decades, only releasing his next full-length album in 2006 under his new moniker.
6. Bobby Fischer
Chess mastermind Bobby Fischer won the game’s U.S. Championship at just 14 and went on to become the world champion in 1972. Unfortunately, though, the eccentric genius also developed into a paranoid anti-Semite. He gave up both chess and his title in 1975 and spent decades skipping from country to country, making statements viciously criticizing America and attempting to evade deportation. His death in 2008, in fact, took place in a hospital in Iceland.
5. Shirley Temple
Before she ever gave her name to a mocktail, Shirley Temple was the definitive child star of the 1930s, charming audiences in classics such as Bright Eyes and Captain January. By just 22 years old, however, Temple had tired of acting and retired from Hollywood. And her 2014 obituaries described exactly what she chose to do next: make rare guest appearances on TV, sit on corporate boards, run unsuccessfully for Congress and, eventually, become the United States Ambassador to Czechoslovakia.
4. Deanna Durbin
Deanna Durbin was Universal Studios’ star prize during the 1930s and ’40s and the endearing heroine of musicals such as First Love. Yet at 27, when she was earning more than any other actress in the world, Durbin decided to swap the Hollywood scene for a much quieter life in France, raising a family and refusing all calls for future screen appearances until her death in 2013, aged 91.
3. Angus T. Jones
When Angus T. Jones officially quit Two and a Half Men in 2014, he gave up the incredible $350,000-an-episode paycheck that had made him TV’s highest-earning child actor. But that move didn’t come as much of a surprise to most, given Jones’ denunciation of the sitcom in 2012 as “filth” and the claim that it was incompatible with his Christian beliefs. The actor did pop up in the show’s finale in 2015, however.
2. Lauryn Hill
Former Fugees songstress Lauryn Hill looked set for a glittering solo career following the Grammy-winning success of her debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, in 1998. Yet almost two decades on and Columbia Records are still waiting on the hotly anticipated second album from R&B’s most elusive singer. Even Hill’s rare live shows are sabotaged by cancelations or erratic behavior onstage.
1. Harper Lee
To Kill a Mockingbird caused a literary sensation when it hit the stands in 1960 and has since gone on to become arguably one of the best-loved novels in the world. It was to be another 55 years, though, before its author, Harper Lee, would publish again, leading most everyone to believe that she’d given up the writing game for good. In the wake of that initial burst of success, in fact, the notoriously private writer made few public appearances, claiming at a rare 2007 outing that, “It’s better to be silent than be a fool.”