That's a Wrap: 15 of the Most Memorable Final Roles of a Star's Career
What does it mean when you hear the phrase "final role"? Well, obviously it's a conclusion of something either important or just something simply definitive. It's usually the last project before a performer retires of their own free will or the universe makes it so. Sadly, when it's the latter, they don't get to choose what their final project will be. Their choice usually was what it ended up being for no particular rhyme or reason.
In Hollywood, many people tend to long at the beginning and ending of a story. The same can be said about an actor or actress' career. The first major film role and the last one were usually the most scrutinized ones in their filmography. The last project gave viewers their last glimpse of a star in all their professional glory before they walked off into the sunset of their own making. Was it better to retire from Hollywood on your own terms or continue to defy the medical odds by working ceaselessly until the very end? It's hard to say, but it ultimately depended on the performer and their work ethic. If working kept them going, a doctor would likely recommend it within reason of course.
In terms of choosing your last project, the script, and the role, ultimately had to speak to the performer at large. Paycheck wouldn't mean anything at this point, because all of the money in the world has been made by this point in their career. Substance always overcame style, if the story was done just right. Here is a list of 15 iconic final performances ranging from the iconic to the downright tragic. Read on to see if one of your favorites made the cut.
Ushering in a Different Era
Audrey Hepburn in Always (1989)- During her decades long career, Hepburn was always an icon of beauty, grace and vulnerability. As she got older though, she seemed to have felt a lesser need to being in front of the camera and her output slowly decreased. By this film, Hepburn wanted to turn her focus to her family and humanitarian work. Her role as Hap in this film is basically a glorified cameo as her character guided a recent deceased pilot (Richard Dreyfuss) into adjusting to the afterlife. She made the most of her small role and showed to viewers that she chose to exit Hollywood on her own terms and that she had a new path in life to take. She died of cancer in 1993 at the age of 63.
William Holden in S.O.B.(1981)- During his career, Holden played handsome but complicated men from Sabrina to Sunset Boulevard. For his last role, he had a supporting role in this Hollywood satire from Director Blake Edwards. The film had an all-star cast that included Julie Andrews and her first foray into on-screen nudity as she flashed her breasts on-camera for a brief moment. The movie itself lampooned Hollywood and its efforts to make a profit from a failing movie. It had a lot of on-camera tomfoolery, but the movie ended up being a disorganized mess. Holden had the chance to star in That Championship Season, but he turned it down. His death in 1981 at the age of 63 was from an accidental fall that led to a fatal injury.
Katharine Hepburn in Love Affair (1994)- This four time Academy Award winner had a career for the record books. She turned in numerous acclaimed performances regularly and was known to be as colorful off-camera as she was when she was in front of it. For this movie remake, star Warren Beatty lobbied hard for a then 86 year Hepburn to appear as his character's elderly aunt Ginny. Her appearance lent the movie enough charm to almost make of the rest of this lackluster remake. It's a shame though that the rest of film wasn't able to match the charming Hepburn in her all too brief appearance. In the end, it was Hepburn last role on the big screen and she died in 2003 at the age of 96.
Parting on Their Terms
Cary Grant in Walk Don't Run (1966)- In this comedy romance, Grant played the older and more distinguished businessman who had seen and done it all. Like he did in a way with his own Hollywood career, Grant designed his character to be a fitting image of himself. He helped to drive the story and pushed his two younger costars into an on-screen romance. His final scene seemed to be his way of passing the torch to a new era as he bid the big screen the ultimate farewell. Not sure if he chose to retire on his own accord or the universe seemed to gear him up to do so. It still made sense to exit Hollywood with this film regardless. Grant never never worked on the big screen again until he died in 1986.
Patrick Swayze in The Beast (2009)- Okay, it is a television show but it is a memorable one mainly for Swayze's intense performance as veteran FBI agent Charles Barker. He was an unorthodox agent who adept at doing undercover operations and he tended to think outside of the box to solve cases. Unfortunately, he might also be a little on the corrupt side. The show itself was a little paint by numbers, but the main draw was Swayze's performance itself. He gave it his all to portray his character as he was going through terminal cancer and his performance was his effort to live just a little longer. The show was cancelled after one season and Swayze died the same year.
Robert Redford in Old Man and the Gun (2018)- For decades, Redford had been charming audiences in front of the camera and with his work behind the camera as a director. He was an actor who brought the right level of dignity and substance into his performances. Redford also had a winning smile that made audiences root for him no matter what. In his final acting role, he chose to retire from working in front of the camera on the right note. Redford played Forrest Tucker, a real life bank robber who also happened to be a gentleman. He was able to get away with it for so long, because he was so charming doing it. Perfect role for Redford to retire from acting on. Let's hope he does continue to work behind the camera, so that he's not too far away from public consciousness.
Classical Tough Guys
Humphrey Bogart in The Harder They Fall (1956)- Since his career started in the 1930s, Bogart made a name for himself by playing tough but complicated characters. He could be both menacing or quietly vulnerable at times. He usually worked well when he was paired with the right leading lady, such as Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca), Katharine Hepburn (The African Queen) or his fourth wife Lauren Bacall (To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep to name a few). He started his career just by playing tough guy hoods, but as it went on he began to play more complicated characters. Bogart won an Oscar for his work in The African Queen and continued to work steadily in the 1950s, until The Harder They Fall in 1956. He died the following year of esophageal cancer at 57 years old. In his final role, he played a washed up sports writer looking for one major story to write. Sure, the movie didn't entirely match up to Bogart's stellar performance, but it will still memorable to watch regardless.
Edward G. Robinson in Solvent Green (1973)- Legendary movie gangster Edward G. Robinson played tough guys who enough panache to make his presence unforgettable. He played Sol Roth who was a friend and mentor to Charlton Heston's character in a story that mixed a murder with science fiction. Robinson played Roth as a man from a bygone era who longed to go back to the days when the world wasn't so chaotic. As the story went on, he chose to end his life and in a way pushed the story forward to its dramatic conclusion. He died the same year the film came out at the age of 79 and was awarded a posthumous honorary Academy Award two months after his death.
Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond (1981)- In his last big screen role, Fonda played Norman Thayer a cantankerous old man who had a distant relationship with his onscreen, and off-screen, daughter (Jane Fonda). He ended up getting closer to his daughter in real life after doing this movie because they were able to understand each other in ways they never did before. Fonda bought the rights to the play that the movie was based on as a gift to her father. She later said that the movie helped resolve any issues they may have had. Fonda died two months after winning his first and only Academy Award. He did have a part in a 1981 television movie called Summer Solstice, but his finest final work will be remembered for his part in Pond.
Burt Lancaster in Field of Dreams (1989)- In his last big screen role, Lancaster played the elderly Moonlight Graham who waxed nostalgic about his brief brush with playing baseball. Although it was just a supporting role, he gave his performance enough charm and substance that it provided enough maximum impact once he left the screen. He had roles in some tv miniseries after this movie, but for all intents and purposes Field of Dreams was his final major film project. He died at 80 years old in 1994 after a heart attack.
Intense Final Completed Performances
Spencer Tracy in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)- For his decades long career, Tracy portrayed man of authority who looked stern on the outside, but secretly had a heart. He usually delivered memorable last act speeches that drove home the movie's main messages. That was the case with his final film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Although his health was declining rapidly, Tracy managed to deliver one more of those rousing speeches as his character supported his onscreen daughter's marriage to an African American doctor. He gave a memorable performance that cemented his legacy to moviegoers because he died soon after the movie was finished filming. Tracy literally gave it his all in his last performance and showed onscreen.
Peter Finch in Network (1976) and Raid on Entebbe (1977)- Finch was one of the first actor's to win an Academy Award posthumously for his work as the unhinged Howard Beale in Network. He played a news anchor who was fired from his job by playing it safe for so many years and managed to keep it when he had an on-air meltdown. Finch was allowed to lose control on-camera in a way that it made him magnetic to watch. He also filmed a tv movie Raid on Entebbe as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He managed to finish filming of the movie before going on a promotional tour for Network when he had a fatal heart attack at 60 years old.
Richard Burton in 1984 (1984)- Burton had a storied career and an infamous reputation off-camera for his hard drinking ways; as well as his complicated relationship with Elizabeth Taylor. Those two things often eclipsed his talent and it led him to choosing some questionable projects along the way. His final role as O'Brien in 1984 allowed him a chance to show the world that he had one more solid performance left in him. He died in 1984 at age 58 due to his years old declining health.
Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008)- Okay, technically his last movie was The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, but he never actually finished it. When Heath Ledger died in 2008 of an accidental overdose, he was in the midst of filming this Terry Gilliam directed exploration into mass oddity. In terms of final completed performances, The Dark Knight had an iconic villain in Ledger's version of The Joker. He was dark, murderous and downright disturbing. As for Parnassus, Gilliam managed to have other actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell) complete Ledger's work by portraying them as transformations of Ledger's character. It was a fitting tribute to Ledger's talent, but let's face it, The Dark Knight will be the final performance he will be remembered for. He also won an Academy Award posthumously for his work in the film.
John Huston in The Other Side of the Wind (2018)- Okay, technically the filming of this was completed in the 1970s, but director Orson Welles lost the rights to the film from his investors. It was mainly due to the fall of the Shah in Iran in the late 1970s. After that, he couldn't gain access to the film that took years for him to complete. It ended up being one of his greatest uncompleted film projects when he died in 1985. Huston ended up passing way in 1987 after completing his last directorial effort The Dead. Due to the efforts of others, Netflix released the film in 2018 with a separate documentary called They'll Love Me When I'm Dead, which talked about the film's long production process. In the documentary, Welles explained why he chose fellow director/sometimes actor Huston to play Jake Hannaford because he chose to not be selfish and gave Huston the part instead of playing it himself. Sure, the film was confusing to follow at times, but Huston was unforgettable throughout. If you watch the film, please watch the documentary before doing so in order to understand it better.
Like any good final act, it was better when it was done so by design and not by execution. Of course, sometimes events do happen that lead performers to be taken before their time is truly up. Take James Dean for example. He only had three major film roles to his credit when he died in 1955 at just 24 years old. Dean had so many film roles to take on before his car accident, but his death ended up making him an eternal iconic because he never ended up aging. He will forever be the eternal rebel for generations to come.
Ultimately, the most iconic film, or television, performances are when an actor or actress gave it their all and chose to go out on a high; rather than a low. They literally burned the candle at both ends and there was nothing left to give. Spencer Tracy's final film role came at a time when he was so ill that film worked around his good days to make up for the days he couldn't work. His final scene showed viewers that he still had enough in his arsenal for one more iconic moment before he gave into his illness. That was what acting and performing was about: giving your all and leaving it behind when the director yelled cut. Plain and simple. They just had to choose when they got to yell cut in their own life story.