James Stewart decided to retire from acting in 1978 at age 70 when The Magic of Lassie flopped (“I can’t even open a dog movie.”) Paul Newman said he considered calling it quits after shooting a dim 1998 movie called Twilight (“You start to deliberately lose your memory.”)
Robert Redford didn’t specify his reasons this week for his announced retirement from acting, but perhaps the title of his final film The Old Man and the Gun provided a signal. The famously reticent actor, now 82, has worked steadily and productively but had not starred in a genuine hit since Out of Africa 30 years ago. His glory days, of course, were the ’70s when he won plaudits in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men. But Redford’s legacy also resides in the Sundance Film Festival and in his fervent advocacy of environmental causes.
In the heyday of the studio system, major stars tended to retire with the onset of middle age, when their contracts elapsed or when scandals hurt their box office clout. Clark Gable was in his 40s when World War II broke out and he emerged to find the studio system in collapse.
Today’s actors, however, seem to be rebelling against ageism: Probably the most expensive movie of this year will be The Irishman from Netflix, which stars Bobby De Niro (age 74), Al Pacino (78) and Joe Pesci (75) and is directed by Martin Scosese (76). Further, Clint Eastwood (88) is wrapping his latest film (The Mule) and he’s even playing an important role in it. The success of The Book Club this year demonstrated the resilience of female geriatric comedy (it starred Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton and Candice Bergen, none of whom is younger than 72).
By contrast, vintage stars like Warren Beatty, Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson and even Dustin Hoffman are quietly fading from the scene and some of their younger colleagues (Daniel Day-Lewis) have followed suit. Some fans of Johnny Depp (only 55) seem to be hustling him toward the door. Michael Douglas (73), by contrast, has found refuge in superhero movies with a recurring non-insect role in Marvel’s Ant-Man films.
Redford emerged as a star at a moment in the ’60s when young filmmakers like Francis Coppola or actor-filmmakers like Dennis Hopper had seized Hollywood’s attention. A major flop titled The Chase (1966) was thought to mark the irrelevance of the star system (a young Redford starred with Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda), and also suggest the end of Redford’s brief career. But the young actor was both determined and ambitious. Having never done comedy, he nonetheless fought for a role in Barefoot in the Park (1967) and then displayed his range in Downhill Racer (1969).
Tough-minded and very private, the San Fernando Valley-bred Redford personified the hot young Hollywood star while seeming to disdain the stereotype. He was famously late for meetings, or often simply a non-show. “The young Redford’s ambition was as hot as his personality was chilly,” Michael Ritchie, the director of Downhill Racer, once observed. At a moment when young ethnic actors like De Niro and Jimmy Caan were capturing attention, Redford was “the cool goy,” observed Sidney Pollack.
Redford’s choice of Ordinary People as his first directing gig seemed to confirm this characterization. The Oscar-winning movie focused on a repressed Midwestern family that proved emotionally incapable of dealing with family tragedy. It returned the semi-retired Mary Tyler Moore to center stage.
Once retired, stars have shown ambivalence about how to occupy themselves or deal with continued public attention. Gene Hackman (88) has written three well-praised historical novels since signing off after his unexciting role in Welcome to Mooseport (2004). Shy about interviews, Hackman told Larry King that he would consider a return provided the film could be shot in one room in his home. Day-Lewis (61) talks occasionally about cobbling shoes if and when he gives up his still buoyant career.
The press-shy Nicholson has expressed interest in several projects in recent years, only to back away — he worked with Ted Melfi to develop 2014’s St. Vincent, then helped connect Bill Murray to the role. Sharing a plane ride with him a couple of years ago, I asked Nicholson if he missed acting. He yawned and replied, “Not if the Lakers can start winning again.”