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Time Out: 10 Artists Who Walked Away

From recluse writers to retired musicians, we look back at the prominent figures who went on a temp-to-permanent hiatus

John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images; Peter Pakvis/Redferns

It's been a good year for coming out of the woodwork: Earlier this month, the sorely missed cartoonist Bill Watterson, who stopped writing Calvin and Hobbes in 1995, shocked the comics world when he showed up as a guest artist in the strip Pearls Before Swine. (The creator of that strip, Stephan Pastis, compared the unexpected Watterson collaboration to getting "a glimpse of Bigfoot.") In May, the mostly retired Phil Collins shocked the crowd at a Miami school when he strolled onstage during a student performance and performed "In the Air Tonight" and "Land of Confusion" with the underage musicians; it was his first public  "concert" since 2010. Journey's Steve Perry recently came out of self-imposed exile to sing with the band Eels in St. Paul, Minnesota, Washington D.C. and L.A., saying, "I've done the 20-year hermit thing, and it's overrated."

And then there's Dave Chappelle, who's spent the intervening years since leaving his show in 2005 popping up sporadically to do shows and impromptu stand-up sets here and there before announcing a nine-date residency at Radio City Music Hall, starting June 18th. (His explanation on Letterman for his comic wandering: "I never quit, I'm seven years late for work.") Not every artist who's taken an extended professional break or straight-up walked away from a successful career, however, has returned to the spotlight. Here are 10 prominent figures — writers, actors, filmmakers, and musicians — who've taken an extended powder, more or less, from public life. By James Sullivan

greta garbo

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Greta Garbo

Nearly 75 years after she turned her back on the movie industry that made her a superstar, she's still the pinup girl for premature retirement. Wanting to be alone was a running theme through her films, so it made sense that, after doing Two-Faced Woman (1941), Garbo walked away from show business. Later in life, she insisted she never actually said "I want to be alone" in regards to her private life: "I only said, ‘I want to be let alone.' There is a world of difference."

j.d. salinger


J.D. Salinger

"I am a kind of paranoid in reverse; I suspect people of plotting to make me happy," said The Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger, who might be the king to Garbo's queen of the desaparecidos. He published his last novella in the New Yorker in 1965, fiercely guarding his privacy in a small town in New Hampshire; several years after his passing in 2010, the announcement that the former golden boy of mid-20th century American literature had been writing and numerous manuscripts would be posthumously released gave his fans something to crow about.

lauryn hill

Peter Pakvis/Redferns

Lauryn Hill

Unlike the waves of hip-hop artists who have briefly "retired," only to return within weeks (or days), Ms. Hill took her long hiatus seriously, much to our dismay. Despite a few one-off performances — an MTV Unplugged special in 2001 here, a Fugees reunion in 2004 there — Hill basically took herself out of circulation for a good portion of the Aughts. "I had to step away when I realized that for the sake of the machine, I was being way too compromised," she later explained. She started gradually returning to performing, including a triumphant return to New York City in 2012. 

tom lehrer

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Tom Lehrer

Most of us know Tom Lehrer as the crack satirist-songwriter of the Fifties and Sixties, responsible for such witty ditties as "Be Prepared," "The Vatican Rag," and "We Will All Go Together When We Go." Just don't wait for him to return to performing any time soon; he retired from singing and tickling the ivories in the early Seventies, dedicating his life to higher learning. The 86-year-old former math professor taught his last class at U.C. Santa Cruz in 2001, on — ironically — the concept of infinity.  

captain beefheart

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Captain Beefheart

After two decades making some of the strangest, most uncompromising music in rock, the artist who answered to Captain Beefheart declared that he'd gotten "too good" at the various horns he played. So Don Van Vliet quit the music business after his finishing his 1982 album Ice Cream for Crow, and took up painting full-time until his passing in 2010. "The stars are matter, we're matter, but it doesn't matter," he once said.

gene wilder

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Gene Wilder

The recent anniversary revival of Blazing Saddles reminded movie fans all over again of the impish appeal of Wilder, who also starred in The Producers, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and Young Frankenstein. After appearing with Richard Pryor in their final film together, 1991's Another You, Wilder effectively retired from working in Hollywood; other than a few TV movies and two appearances on the show Will & Grace, he's been content to stay offscreen. It's not that he wouldn't act on a regular basis; he just doesn't get good scripts anymore. 

garth brooks

Paul Natkin/WireImage)

Garth Brooks

Over the last several years, Brooks has gone back and forth with the late Elvis Presley as the best-selling solo artist in U.S. history. Not bad for a guy who took most of the 2000s off from touring, has spent spring training with several major league baseball teams and once disappeared into an unfortunate alter-ego as a rock singer called Chris Gaines. He eventually came out of retirement in 2009 for a five-year residency at a casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

bill withers

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Bill Withers

The soul singer had a string of hits in the Seventies, but after releasing his last album in 1985, Bill Withers walked away. Fans had hoped the success of the 2009 documentary "Still Bill" might convince the man behind "Lean on Me," "Grandma's Hands" and a long list of excellent songs to show some interest in touring, as he had not for decades. No such luck.  

fred neil

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Fred Neil

One of the weightiest talents to emerge from the Greenwich Village folk scene, the songwriter behind the classic Midnight Cowboy song "Everybody's Talkin'" left music behind in the early Seventies to co-found the Dolphin Research Project. Which gave his other best-known song, the much-covered "The Dolphins," that much more depth.

Terrence Malick

20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

Terrence Malick

We take it for granted now that the Texas-based filmmaker releases movies on a regular basis and seems to be working on several projects at any given time — but from 1978 to 1998, Terrence Malick was completely M.I.A. After finishing his second film Days of Heaven, Malick removed himself from the Hollywood rat race; depending on who you talk to, he then spent two decades writing prospective screenplays, living in Paris, possibly teaching, or simply sat around bird-watching for weeks on end. He's refused to do interviews since returning to filmmaking with The Thin Red Line in 1998, so no definite answer has been given. We're just ecstatic to have him back.

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