18 Famous Stars Who Quit at Their Peak (PHOTOS)

Laura Anastasia | Sep 28, 2015 Celebrities
18 Famous Stars Who Quit at Their Peak (PHOTOS)

Fame, fortune, adoring fans. Who could ask for anything more? Apparently One Direction heartthrob Zayn Malik can, as well as 17 other stars who abandoned million-dollar contracts and highly coveted careers at the height of their fame. Some did it for family or health reasons, some simply to become royalty. (No joke!) 

In some cases the resignation lasted only a few weeks, but in others, it was a permanent decision that lasted a lifetime. What causes a celebrity to trade megastardom for a life out of the spotlight at the peak of their career? Check out these 18 famous stars who did just that. 


Image via © KCS Presse/Splash News/Corbis

  • Amanda Bynes


    Image © Katy Winn/Corbis

    In the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, funny girl Bynes showed off her comedic chops on Nickelodeon's All That and The Amanda Show, as well as the WB hit What I Like About You with Jennie Garth. The sweet-faced star also acted in movies including What a Girl Wants, Hairspray, and Easy A. The laughs ended in 2010, when Bynes announced her retirement from acting via Twitter. In the years that followed, she was arrested for driving under the influence, caught shoplifting, and checked into a psychiatric facility. Bynes is reportedly doing much better these days.  

  • T.R. Knight


    Image © Andrew Marks/Corbis

    Knight nabbed the role of adorable George O'Malley on Grey's Anatomy in 2005. The drama became an instant fan favorite, as did Knight. During season 5, however, the actor reportedly became disillusioned with his story lines and limited screen time. He walked away from his million-dollar contract in 2009. His TV jobs have been scarce since, except for a seven-episode stint on The Good Wife in 2013. Grey's Anatomy, meanwhile, is still going strong six years later.


  • Geri Halliwell


    Image © Zak Hussein/Corbis

    The Spice Girls were the "it" group of the 1990s, so Halliwell's decision to leave in 1998 shocked fans. Ginger Spice blamed "differences between us" as her reason for leaving. The group continued zigazig-ah-ing without her for a few more years before splitting in 2001 to pursue solo careers. 

  • Zayn Malik


    Image © Jared Milgrim/The Photo Access/The World Access/Corbis

    The talented heartthrob broke millions of hearts when he quit One Direction in March 2015, saying he longed for a simpler life. "I want to be a normal 22-year-old who is able to relax and have some private time out of the spotlight," he explained. The move cost him big time in future fame and fortune. One Direction, which is continuing without Malik, grossed $290 million touring in 2014 alone and is the only group in 60 years to have their first four albums debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. 

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  • Larry Sanders


    Image © Mike McGinnis/ZUMA Press/Corbis

    Milwaukee Bucks center Larry Sanders walked away from a successful basketball career in February 2015. He reportedly had $27 million left in his contract. Sanders, who was in his fifth season with the NBA, later revealed he was suffering from a mood disorder, anxiety, and depression. 

  • Paula Abdul


    Image © Jenna Blake/Corbis

    Forever your girl ... or not. Abdul skipped out on top show American Idol in 2009 after eight years as a judge alongside Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson. Sources say the singer abandoned her post over a salary dispute. Abdul has since served as an occasional guest judge on So You Think You Can Dance. Meanwhile, American Idol's fifteenth -- and final -- season is in the works.  

  • Joaquin Phoenix


    Image © Jenna Blake/Corbis

    The three-time Oscar nominee announced he was quitting acting in 2008. He spent the next two years bewildering fans with odd behavior while pursuing a rap career. In 2010, Phoenix revealed the whole thing had been an elaborate hoax for the mockumentary, I'm Still Here. He shaved off his wild beard and returned to the big screen in 2012, most recently starring in 2015's Irrational Man

  • David Caruso


    Image © Frank Trapper/Corbis

    This sexy ginger became the poster child for bad career decisions in 1994, when he left hit show NYPD Blue just four episodes into the second season, allegedly over a contract dispute. Caruso, who had shot to stardom with NYPD Blue's first season, spent the next decade mired in awful movies and failed TV shows before landing his next hit, CSI: Miami, in 2002. 

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  • Pat Tillman


    Image © Scott Wachter/ Icon SMI/ZUMA/Corbis

    The football player scored big with the NFL's Arizona Cardinals, breaking the franchise record for tackles in 2000. His goals, however, changed after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. He put his football career on hold and enlisted in the Army. He served in Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2004. Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004.

  • Phoebe Cates


    Image © Corbis

    Teens couldn't get enough of Cates in the 1980s and early 1990s. The actress starred in a dozen films, including Gremlins and Drop Dead Fred. (Ask any man about her bikini scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.) Cates abandoned the limelight at 31 in 1994 to raise her children with husband Kevin Kline. She's only returned to acting once since, for friend Jennifer Jason Leigh's 2001 film, The Anniversary Party.  

  • Grace Kelly


    Image © Corbis

    Kelly was one of the highest-paid actresses in the world, not to mention an Academy Award winner, when she abandoned Hollywood to marry Prince Rainier III of Monaco in 1956. The To Catch a Thief star became Princess Consort of Monaco, had three children, and never returned to the silver screen. The princess died in 1982 at age 52 after a tragic car accident. 

  • Rosie O'Donnell


    Image © Edward Le Poulin/Corbis

    The lovable loud-mouth quit popular talk show The View twice. O'Donnell first departed in 2007, after a heated on-air spat with co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck. She returned in 2014, only to abandon ship six months later. The 53-year-old star, who had a heart attack in 2012, says she quit the show to minimize stress and spend more time with her five kids in light of her split from wife Michelle Rounds.

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  • Cote de Pablo


    Image © Faye Sadou/AdMedia/Corbis

    After eight seasons playing NCIS fan-favorite Ziva David, de Pablo left the hit show abruptly in 2013, just before production started on season 11. The actress, who said she left for personal reasons, has hinted she may return to the show this season. 

  • Greta Garbo


    Image © Corbis

    "I vant to be let alone!" One of the screen legend's most famous lines was also true in real life. The Swedish actress with the heavy accent was a major film star in the 1930s, starring in 27 movies over her 19-year career. She retired abruptly in 1941 at age 36, never acting again. Garbo shunned the press and fans until her death in 1990.

  • Harper Lee


    Image © Christy Bowe/ZUMA Press/Corbis

    Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, became an instant classic when it was published in 1960. The media-shy author, however, refused to pen another book for decades. In February 2015, Lee announced the release of Go Set a Watchman, which she wrote before Mockingbird. Many people have questioned the 89-year-old's role in the release of the book, which some critics allege is unfinished.

  • Barry Sanders


    Image © Reuters/Corbis

    Legendary football star Barry Sanders retired abruptly in 1999, less than 1,500 yards away from beating the NFL's all-time rushing record. Years later, the former Detroit Lions running back wrote a book explaining that he left because he felt the Lions' front office was no longer trying to win.  

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  • Dave Chappelle


    Image © J. Dennis Thomas/Corbis

    The rumors surrounding Chappelle's disapearance in April 2005 even made Newsweek and Time. Was he high on drugs? Locked in a mental institution? The stand-up comedian had been at the peak of his career, filming his hit, Chappelle's Show. Then one day he walked off set and boarded a plane, not even telling his wife his destination. He later revealed he spent two weeks in Africa to escape the pressure of his show's mega success. Chappelle returned stateside, but now sticks to impromptu stand-up routines. 

  • Rocky Marciano


    Image © Bettmann/Corbis

    Marciano kept his boxing career short and sweet. He won the heavyweight boxing title for four years in the 1950s, and retired at his peak at 32, avoiding the chronic injuries that plagued some of his competitors. The boxer later earned some big-screen love. In the Rocky movies, Sylvester Stallone's character is a huge Marciano fan. 

  • Agatha Christie


    Image © Bettmann/Corbis

    In 1926, popular mystery writer Christie kissed her sleeping daughter good-bye and drove off into the night. More than 1,000 police officers searched for her for 11 days as rumors swirled of murder or suicide. Christie was found at a spa hotel under an assumed name. She wrote 72 more novels over her lifetime, but never revealed the reason behind her strange disappearance. Some experts speculate the author, who died in 1976, had suffered from temporary out-of-body amnesia caused by stress.

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