Show Mobile Navigation
Movies and TV |

10 Actors Dragged out of Retirement for One Key Role

by Alisdair Hodgson
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Actors seem an ever-present force, occupying the background of most of our lives, but it can sometimes take us a while to notice when they’re gone. Plenty of stars over the years have handed in their Screen Actors Guild card and sailed off into the sunset on a luxury yacht, but it can take their unexpected return for the hype train to get moving again and for everyone to remember how much they loved them. Pity, then, that they don’t always pick the best production to return in.

Nevertheless, there are a whole host of talents out there whose presence has been missed on screen and who have been tempted back out of retirement despite ostensibly having given it up for good. Some return for just one movie, others a whole new chapter of their career, but in each case, they have their idiosyncratic reasons why that first post-retirement role dragged them back.

Related: 10 Actors That Are Polar Opposites from Their Characters

10 Phoebe Cates (The Anniversary Party, 2001)

The Anniversary Party (2001)

Thanks to a series of supporting roles in major 1980s movies, including Gremlins (1984) and Bright Lights, Big City (1988), Phoebe Cates became a sensation in record time. However, it is her iconic swimming pool scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) that has ensured her place in cinematic canon.

Despite being a bankable star, the actress retired from the business in 1994 to be at home and raise her children, Owen and Greta. She left the acting to her husband, Kevin Kline. While the retirement stuck, Cates did reappear on our screens once, finally, back in 2001.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming’s The Anniversary Party successfully lured Cates back to the big screen, if only for this one movie. The actress had worked with Leigh on Ridgemont High, and the pair had been fast friends ever since, so much so that Leigh was the only person Cates was willing to return to acting for. But on one condition: that she got to bring her children. As a result, Cates, Kline, and both their children star in the movie.[1]

9 Joe Pesci (The Irishman, 2019)

The Irishman | Joe Pesci | Netflix

Joe Pesci made his name in crime movies, playing Frankie Minaldi in Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Leo Getz in the Lethal Weapon series, and Harry Lime in the Home Alone franchise, alongside numerous wiseguys and gangsters for Martin Scorsese. So The Irishman—the biggest gangster movie of the past decade (in both budget and scope)—couldn’t be expected to film without him. There was only one problem: He had retired nearly a decade prior.

Luckily, director Martin Scorsese had a few tricks up his sleeve, and none more formidable than long-time collaborator Robert De Niro, who has starred in countless movies alongside Pesci.

Scorsese sent De Niro to badger him, but Pesci turned down the role of crime boss Russell Bufalino up to forty times. It wasn’t until Netflix took the project on and financing was guaranteed, assuring Pesci of a decent paycheck and the ability to see the ambitious project—which made heavy use of expensive digital de-ageing technology—come to life, that the actor conceded and came on-board.[2]

8 Jane Fonda (Monster-in-Law, 2005)

Monster-in-Law (1/3) Movie CLIP – Popping the Question (2005) HD

As a member of one of the largest and best-known families in Hollywood, Jane Fonda was always destined to be a star. Her father, Henry, enjoyed five decades on the big screen; her brother, Peter, six. But Jane, who had been in movies since 1960’s Tall Story, packed it all in for married life in 1991.

After marrying media baron Ted Turner, the actress announced her retirement, seeking to step out of the spotlight and enjoy a bit of wealth and luxury. But the pair divorced in 2001, and Fonda began to cast her eye back toward the silver screen.

Deciding enough time had passed and that she was now in a different place, Fonda wound up starring opposite J.Lo in the rom-com Monster-in-Law. She relished the opportunity to play the mother-in-law character precisely because she (the character) is so over-the-top, allowing the actress the opportunity to find a more slapstick and humorous output that made her happy in the process.[3]

7 Jack Gleeson (Out of Her Mind, 2020)

Jack Gleeson in Out of her Mind, ep 5 #jackgleeson #outofhermind

The actor everyone loves to hate, Jack Gleeson, made history as King Joffrey Baratheon on HBO’s Game of Thrones, providing one of the most uniquely vile and loathsome villains of all time. But after Joffrey was killed off in the show’s fourth season, Gleeson found himself questioning whether acting and the lifestyle that comes with it were really for him.

After some soul searching, the young actor decided to step away from the profession and move toward academia while continuing charitable work for global poverty charity GOAL.

Nevertheless, Gleeson was brought back to the small screen by English comedian Sara Pascoe, starring in a bit-part as Casper—the ghost of Pascoe’s aborted child—for two episodes of her BBC miniseries Out of Her Mind. But why Gleeson? Well, the advice given to Pascoe was, “If you’re going to have someone playing an abortion, then you should choose an actor that everyone wishes was dead.” And who is better than King Joffrey himself?[4]

6 Robert Redford (Omniboat: A Fast Boat Fantasia, 2020)

Director Olivie Lloyd talks Omniboat with host Al Sotto – Sundance 2020

Let it never be said that Robert Redford didn’t put in his time on screen, given that he began his life on screen in 1960 and eked out a career in no fewer than 46 films. But that doesn’t mean the world wasn’t disappointed when the actor announced in 2018 that The Old Man & the Gun would be his final film.

When he popped up in Avengers: Endgame (2019), the world thought he had reneged on his retirement. But although he did reprise his role as HYDRA mastermind Alexander Pierce (originally seen in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier), he completed his scenes before The Old Man & the Gun and his announcement.

In fact, the film that actually returned him to the world of acting was, perplexingly, Omniboat: A Fast Boat Fantasia—a two-hour absurdist anthology film co-directed by Redford’s grandson Dylan, chronicling the story of a TopGun Cigarette boat. In the film, Redford voices a dolphin named Lokia, and if it wasn’t for the fact that he did it as a favor to his grandson, it would be as unbelievable as it sounds.[5]

5 Shelley Duvall (The Forest Hills, 2023)

THE FOREST HILLS Official Trailer (2022) Shelley Duvall, Edward Furlong Horror Movie HD

Shelley Duvall may be best known today for her role as Wendy Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s horror The Shining (1980), but her career spanned genres and saw her work with directors as diverse as Tim Burton, Jane Campion, Terry Gilliam, and Woody Allen.

Despite habitually starring in multiple films per year throughout the ’90s, Duvall’s career was already dwindling in the run-up to her retirement, having moved primarily into supporting and cameo parts, with few offers of leading roles on the table. Having starred in more than 20 movies, she stepped away from Hollywood in 2002 and retired to Texas to support her brother, who had been diagnosed with spinal cancer.

Fast forward twenty years, and Duvall returned to acting in Scott Goldberg’s indie horror The Forest Hills, which pairs her with fellow forgotten actor Edward Furlong for a werewolf romp in the woods. But despite this ostensibly being the actor’s return to acting, she hasn’t signed onto any other new projects—at least not yet.[6]

4 Sean Connery (Sir Billi, 2012)

Sir Billi – Sean Connery’s Last Film! Worst Animated Film ever!? Palmerama Reviews!

The definitive James Bond, Sean Connery’s career started on such a high that he was never able to top it. Regardless, he continued to act in thrillers, dramas, action features, and franchise movies into his seventies. Following a turbulent time as Allan Quatermain in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), however, he quit the business for good, accepting the film as something of a disaster and walking away on a low.
Nearly a decade later, however, Connery turned up in a surprising place—voicing the titular character in the children’s animation Sir Billi. And if it hadn’t been for his grandchildren, he would never have done it.

Filmmaker couple Sascha and Tessa Hartmann had prepared a sample DVD of their animation and mailed it to Connery on a whim with a request for him to star. And while they never thought it would come to anything, the 007 icon got back to them eventually, saying his grandkids had watched the DVD on repeat and that he would be happy to take the part—despite having turned down films as big as the fourth Indiana Jones in the interim.[7]

3 Cameron Diaz (Back in Action, 2024)

Cameron Diaz BACK ON SET With Jamie Foxx After Retiring

A staple of late-1990s and early aughts cinema, Cameron Diaz’s continuing career success seemed as assured as anyone’s in the business, but by the mid-2010s, she was appearing in more middling movies than ever and had lost her original foothold.

After 2014’s Annie, Diaz called it quits, seeking to enter a new phase where she would no longer have to make and promote movies and could lead something like a more normal life again, building a family with her husband, Good Charlotte guitarist Benji Madden.

Eight years on, after Diaz had raised her daughter and established a secure home life, Madden persuaded and enabled her to re-enter the world of acting. This included agreeing to accompany her and their daughter to film in London, meaning she could combine her private and professional lives without having to prioritize either. Back in Action was released on Netflix in 2024, and while Diaz hasn’t been tremendously active since, she is signed on to star in Jonah Hill’s next movie Outcome.[8]

2 Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York, 2002)

Bill The Butcher haunting monologue | Gangs of New York | CLIP

Few actors have quit the business as often as Daniel Day-Lewis. The notoriously selective star has cherry-picked roles throughout his career and pursued various other vocations at the same time, never placing his eggs in one basket despite the prodigious talents he held from the start.

After 1997’s The Boxer, Day-Lewis retired from acting and learned a trade, becoming a small, private cobbler—or shoemaker, to you and me. A few years on, however, when Martin Scorsese was casting the Bill the Butcher part for 2002’s Gangs of New York, the only man that he and his star Leonardo DiCaprio could picture in the role was Day-Lewis. Thus, Scorsese sent DiCaprio to track him down and persuade him to return. The young actor did, and over several conversations, dinners, and pitches, he got him on board.

Never one to stick around for good, Day-Lewis retired again, this time for keeps, in 2017, having starred in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. And if it wasn’t for Scorsese and DiCaprio, we may never have enjoyed that and all the other parts he played in the final 15 years of his career.[9]

1 Ke Huy Quan (Everything Everywhere All at Once, 2022)

Waymond’s about to kick some serious ass | Everything Everywhere All At Once | Prime Video

For a long time, Ke Huy Quan was better known as Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Data from The Goonies (1985). Despite such memorable parts, his film career stumbled through just six more films before he retired in 2002. Having made the decision to move away from acting, he graduated from USC film school and started working behind the camera as a successful assistant director and stunt coordinator.

Nearly two decades on, Quan was tempted back to the fold after watching Crazy Rich Asians (2018), recognizing the new boost in authentic representation for Asians onscreen and wanting to be a part of it. Thus, he began to put his feelers out, and the right project fell into his lap.

Quan couldn’t say no when he saw the script for the Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All at Once. Quan felt that all the multiverse variations of his character in the script were “written for [him]” and that he “understood every single one of them,” but that the parts found him at precisely the right point in his life, as he couldn’t have played them any sooner.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen