With the recent retirement news of legendary broadcaster and showbiz stalwart David Letterman, the changing landscape of late night television just saw its oldest gatekeeper hang up his jersey. The industry that was held in such safe hands by Letterman and Jay Leno all these years has changed dramatically over the last few months. Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel have inserted themselves as the two young network stars duking it out for the coveted young demographic. The outpouring of adoration for this titan of show business showed what an impact he’s had in his 33-year career. Late Night with David Letterman which began airing after Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show in 1982 showcased Dave’s irreverent wit. This would lead him to host The Late Show with David Letterman on CBS where he would compete with NBC’s Jay Leno for years.
Dave’s retirement came in typical Dave Letterman fashion, in that it was out the blue and seemingly done on a whim. “I phoned him just before the program, and I said, ‘Leslie (CBS president), it’s been great, you’ve been great, the network has been great, but I’m retiring,” Letterman recounted. The audience and his long time band leader Paul Shaffer seemed genuinely taken aback and unsure if this was a joke or not. “You really did this?” said Shaffer, “yes I did,” replied Dave with his trademark toothy smile. This moment had to come eventually, yet the announcement still sent shockwaves through the entertainment industry as one of the pillars of broadcasting said he was stepping down for good.
It was announced just days later that Stephen Colbert would be replacing Letterman after he leaves in 2015. The media hoopla surrounding the impromptu farewell lets us examine some of the other shocking retirement announcements that either came too abruptly or genuinely surprised everyone.
10. Richard Nixon
Nixon’s retirement, or more appropriately described as his resignation, came on August 9, 1974. He was facing near-certain impeachment and addressed the nation from the oval office. He believed he had the obligation to complete his term despite the Watergate charges, but eventually reconciled his thoughts on the matter. “In the past days, however, it has become evident that I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing that effort,” he said. “As president I must put the interests of America first.” He departed as the only American President to ever step down from office.
9. Barry Sanders
A perennial favorite among football fans for his lightning speed and elusiveness. More than anyone else in his day, Sanders made defenders look silly with his lateral movement and cutting abilities. Many believe he was the most gifted running back to ever lace up a pair of cleats, which made his exit from the gridiron all the more shocking. He left at the peak of his powers and was only 1,457 yards away from overtaking Walter Payton on the all-time rushing list. His exit caused a storm of controversy, especially in the Detroit Lions front office. He still had fours years left on his six-year contract worth approximately $36 million. He would finally open up years later about his early exit, stating that he realized Lions management no longer cared about building a winning team. That realization “slammed me harder than any linebacker had ever hit me in my entire career,” Sanders said.
8. Dave Chappelle
While not exactly a retirement per se, it was certainly a shocking and dramatic exit. Chappelle had just signed a $50 million deal to continue his insanely popular Comedy Central show, which bared his name. He was ostensibly the biggest thing in comedy at the time and decided that the show’s success mixed with the huge payday was too much pressure to live up to. He not only left Chappelle Show, he decided to depart the continent as well. He moved to Africa for a time before coming back to the States to continue performing standup.
7. Micheal Jordan
Michael Jordan left the NBA in October 1993 and it was like somebody dropped a bomb on the city of Chicago and the rest of the NBA universe. The man who had won three straight titles, three straight NBA Finals MVP awards, and seven straight scoring titles told the world he was hanging up his Air Jordan’s for good.
He was at the height of his fame, a global icon and without a doubt one of the most famous people in the world. Following the tragic murder of his father, he retired from basketball to pursue the dream his dad had always wanted for him, to play baseball. The Chicago fan base was stunned. The NBA was stunned. Jordan was personally responsible for generating billions of dollars for the NBA and other corporate brands. He told the world “I’ve reached the pinnacle…I always said to the people that have known me that when I lose that sense of motivation and that sense that I can prove something, it’s time for me to leave.” Fortunately, for all of us, he changed his mind after two years of an underwhelming baseball career. He came back to the NBA and would go on to win three more titles with the Chicago Bulls.
6. Garth Brooks
By the year 2000 Brooks seemed eager to step away from the spotlight for personal reasons. An impending divorce from his wife and wanting more time to spend with his children, Brooks officially retired from performing and recording. It came as quite a shock to his adoring country fans. He was and still is one of the highest selling artists of all time. In the U.S., he is number two on the list for best selling solo artist of all time. He is just behind Elvis Pressley who has sold 134.5 million to Brooks’ 128 million, as of June 2012. In 2009, to the delight of his fans, Brooks came back to live performing. He did a memorable stint in Las Vegas, but has yet to record a new album.
5. John Arnold
A hedge fund manager and general rich-guy, John Arnold took his $3.5 billion dollars and announced he would retire, at the tender age of 38. Arnold is a former trader for the scandal-laden energy company Enron which went bust in 2001. He was “not accused of any wrongdoing” in that affair and went on to found his own energy company. He is one of the 500 richest people in the United States and closed the door on his energy trading firm, Centaurus Advisors, to “pursue other interests”. He is also one of the wealthy Americans who put their name on the Giving Pledge, which is a commitment to give away more than half of one’s wealth to charity or philanthropic causes during their lifetime or after they have passed.
4. Gary Larson
The artist behind the phenomenally popular single-panel cartoon The Far Side called it quits at 44 claiming “simple fatigue”. Larson feared his work would descend “into the Graveyard of Mediocre Cartoons,” when he decided to retire in 1995. The surrealist cartoon was syndicated in over 1,900 newspapers across the United States and vanished from the public consciousness, leaving million of readers to rejoice in the adventures of “Marmaduke” and “Broom-Hilda”… Collections of his cartoons became New York Times bestsellers. The Far Side almost definitely holds the record for “cartoon most likely to adorn a refrigerator.” With all of the peripherals, including mugs and greeting cards, his off-beat singular vision may have generated over $500 million.
One of the greatest mysteries in Shakespeare’s illustrious career is why he decided to quit after achieving such fame and notoriety in his day. Although it’s not exactly known when, between 1610 and 1613 Shakespeare returned to his birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, to the house where he would eventually die in 1616. With a mixture of play writing success and shrewd business tactics Shakespeare retired a wealthy man. He had a large property in Stratford-upon-Avon where his family would live, while he worked in London. The details of his retirement are murky, with some suggesting he wanted to get away from the busy London streets and live a more quiet life in the country. We do know that at the age of 49 Shakespeare was becoming more and more famous when he gave it all up for still-unknown reasons.
2. Grace Kelly
The quintessential starlet of her day, Grace Kelly had a dazzling acting career, most notably starring in many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. She costarred alongside many of cinema’s most famous leading men, including Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra. While ascending to the level of Hollywood royalty, she decided to give it up for real royalty after a chance meeting with Prince Rainier of Monaco. At 26 years old, she would marry the Prince and become Princess of Monaco, clearly leaving no time for acting. Her films ended up being banned in Monaco at the behest of her very own husband, Prince Rainier. Hitchcock would offer her a leading role for one of his films in production, but public outcry (in Monaco) over the character she would portray ultimately lead to her turning down the part.
1. Magic Johnson
On November 7, 1991 Magic Johnson shocked the basketball world when he announced he was HIV-positive. Magic was at the tail end of his career, yet still playing outstanding basketball. Knowing what we know now about the disease, it’s easy to see why Johnson regretted the decision years later. He wasn’t putting any opponents or teammates at risk and could have played many more years at a high level. At the time, the national mindset about HIV/AIDS was one of fear and ignorance.
During his retirement press conference, reporters, friends, and teammates alike were visibly shook. They shed tears for one of the all-time greats and could not understand how this 32-year old man could be leaving the game he helped popularize. Magic remained defiant, telling the crowd “I’m going to go on. I’m going to beat this, and I’m going to have fun.” That he did. He would make a brief comeback during the 1995 NBA season, but was underused on a young rebuilding team.