For many Hollywood stars, ‘retirement’ is a dirty word. A lot of veteran actors refuse to leave show business behind as they get older, either continuing to pursue major roles, turning to directing or fighting to stay relevant through lucrative speaking events, social media or even politics. This was not the case, however, for film legend Gene Hackman.

In 2004, Hackman retired suddenly from acting over health concerns. After a doctor warned that his heart couldn’t take it anymore, the two-time Oscar winner left Hollywood for New Mexico, and has led a private life there ever since. Given to stress and always notorious for his temper on set, in the end Hackman found it was the industry itself that was damaging his health.

The Hollywood years

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Born January 30, 1930 in San Bernardino, California, Gene Hackman served in the United States Marine Corps (aged 16, having lied about his age) before deciding to give acting a try in the mid-1950s. First working in off-Broadway theatre productions and minor film and TV roles, Hackman’s profile rose with a supporting role in 1967’s groundbreaking Bonnie and Clyde. More prominent roles followed, most significantly Detective Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle in William Friedkin’s 1971 cop thriller The French Connection.

As well as changing the game for the action thriller genre, The French Connection also established Hackman – who won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance – as a major leading man. His subsequent 70s films included The Poseidon Adventure, The Conversation and Superman. After landing another Best Actor Oscar nomination for 1988’s Mississippi Burning, Hackman won his second Academy Award, in the Best Supporting Actor category, for Clint Eastwood’s 1992 western Unforgiven.

After this big win, Hackman worked prolifically – yet all the while, reports of him being difficult to work with became commonplace, particularly when it came to his directors. The actor admitted in a Larry King interview (via The Independent), “I have trouble with direction, because I just have always had trouble with authority. I was not a good Marine. I made corporal once and was promptly busted.”

End of a career

Things were particularly tense on what proved to be one of Hackman’s last films. Director Wes Anderson had written the role of Royal Tenenbaum in 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums specifically for Hackman, but the actor – who had been reluctant to take the part – did not get along with Anderson during the shoot. Things got so bad that supporting actor Bill Murray chose to remain on set even on his days off in order to help keep the peace.

Hackman’s confrontational nature in this period was not limited to film sets; the actor also got into a fist fight over a traffic accident in 2001. Hackman told the Los Angeles Times: “We had this ugly wrestling match on the ground. The police came… I got a couple of good shots in. The guy had me around the neck. That’s the ugly part. When you’re down on the ground and you’re nearly 72 years old.”

Hackman’s final film role was in Welcome to Mooseport, a 2004 comedy that met with negative reviews and was a box office bomb. Shortly afterwards, Hackman unexpectedly declared to Larry King that his acting days were done. Asked what movie role was coming up next, Hackman joked, “I don’t have a project, Larry. If you have a script, I’ll read it,” before declaring, “it’s probably all over… This is it.”

New life in Santa Fe

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Hackman and his second wife, classical pianist Betsy Arakawa, retired to Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, the ex-actor shifted his focus to other artistic interests, including architecture and design. No mere hobbyist, Hackman’s efforts have earned him praise in Architectural Digest Magazine.

In addition, Hackman has continued to work in a different corner of the entertainment industry, as a novelist. His first three novels – Wake of the Perdido Star (1999), Justice for None (2004) and Escape from Andersonville (2008) – are works of historical fiction written in collaboration with historian Daniel Lenihan. Hackman has since written two novels on his own: 2011 western Payback at Morning Peak, and 2013 cop thriller Pursuit.

Health before Hollywood

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At the time, many assumed that Hackman had made this career change simply because he was bored of acting, and decided he had made enough money to live out his days in comfort. However, in his rare later interviews, Hackman has clarified that he chose to leave Hollywood on account of his health, alluding to a long struggle with stress.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back was actually a stress test that I took in New York,” Hackman has said. “The doctor advised me that my heart wasn’t in the kind of shape that I should be putting it under any stress.”

“I miss the actual acting part of it, as it’s what I did for almost 60 years, and I really loved that,” Hackman elaborated in a 2008 interview with Reuters. “But the business for me is very stressful. The compromises that you have to make in films are just part of the beast, and it had gotten to a point where I just didn’t feel like I wanted to do it anymore.”

Once Hackman had decided to step back, that was it: “The agents don’t want me to say it, in case something good comes along,” he said to Empire Magazine in 2009, “but I’m officially retired. No doubt about it.” Since then, Hackman has occasionally been spotted around Santa Fe, enjoying his well-earned retirement – which as it goes hasn’t always been without incident.

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Any suspicions that retirement might have mellowed Hackman were dashed in late 2012, when news broke that he hit a homeless man who approached him and his wife in an aggressive manner. The police attended the scene and no charges were filed, with one sergeant telling the press: “It more like a slap than a punch. It looked like Mr Hackman did this purely out of self-defence to protect himself and his wife.”

This news came in the wake of another unfortunate incident for Hackman, as earlier in 2012 he had suffered a minor collision with a vehicle whilst riding his bicycle in the Florida Keys. The then-82-year-old Hackman was airlifted to hospital but fortunately did not incur serious injury, only suffering bumps and bruises.

Amid his relative silence, other stars have chimed in about Hackman’s seclusion. In 2014, his old friend Dustin Hoffman remarked, “I haven’t talked to him in a long time… But when we did Runaway Jury [in 2003], he said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ He paints and writes fiction now. He’s smarter than most of us, so he can do that.”

“He’s too good an actor not to be performing”

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Now aged 80, Hoffman broke through at the same time as Hackman, as did their mutual friend Robert Duvall (aged 92), yet neither actor has followed Hackman into retirement. Likewise, Hackman’s Unforgiven collaborators Clint Eastwood (92) and Morgan Freeman (85) are still in the business; Eastwood recently directed and played the lead in 2021’s Cry Macho, whilst Freeman featured in the opening ceremony of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

In a 2008 interview. Eastwood called Hackman’s retirement “a sad thing,” and admitted many in Hollywood were keen to get Hackman back in the game: “I know his agent and I saw him recently, and he said, ‘Can’t you talk Gene into coming back?’ I said, ‘I’d love to see him come back, but I think it’s not very nice to ride him… He’s too good an actor not to be performing, but by the same token, he probably thinks that’s enough.”

Hackman with musician Seth Rudetsky and actress Ana Gasteyer. Credit: Seth Rudetsky via Twitter

2021 saw Hackman give his first interview in a decade (albeit over email) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of The French Connection, and he admitted that he has never rewatched the film that launched him.

“[I] haven’t seen the film since the first screening in a dark, tiny viewing room in a post-production company’s facility 50 years ago.” He remarked, “If [The French Connection] has a legacy, I am not sure what that would be,” but added that it “certainly helped me in my career, and I am grateful for that.”