When Gene Hackman was 13, he was playing outside one day in Danville, Illinois, as his father walked by and waved to him. Only later did Gene discover that his dad was abandoning their family. “I hadn’t realized how much one small gesture can mean,” he once told GQ. “Maybe that’s why I became an actor.”

Such subtlety became a trademark of Gene’s acclaimed career on the big screen. After winning two Oscars, he left Hollywood behind in 2004 just as quietly as his father had left him. “I haven’t held a press conference to announce my retirement, but yes, I’m not going to act any longer,” he revealed Reuters. “I miss the actual acting part of it, as it’s what I did for almost 60 years, and I really loved that. But the business for me is very stressful.”

Gene Hackman at the 1993 Oscars
Eugene Adebari/Shutterstock

These days, Gene — who turned 90 on January 30 — leads a stress-free life in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Betsy, his wife since 1991. “His health is good, he still bicycles, does yard work and he’s a great handyman,” an insider exclusively tells Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. “After all the drama of Gene’s career, he loves the peaceful life he shares with the lovely Betsy.” He’s come a long way from what he calls his “troubled youth.” Acting provided an escape. “My mother and I were at a film once, and we came out through the lobby and she said, ‘I want to see you do that someday,’” he once recalled to Larry King. “And that was all that was needed.”

His mom died in 1962, reportedly after she passed out drinking in bed with a lit cigarette in her hand and started a fatal fire. “Unfortunately, my mom never saw me act, so I’m sorry for that,” Gene told GQ. “But that’s the way it is.”

He managed to channel the pain of his past into his work, becoming one of the most revered performers of his generation. As Gene famously quoted, “Dysfunctional families have sired a number of pretty good actors.”

Gene Hackman in 'Bonnie and Clyde'
Warner Bros/Seven Arts/Tatira-Hiller Productions/Kobal/Shutterstock

Gene struggled for a long time — he and roommate Dustin Hoffman were voted “Least Likely to Succeed” at the Pasadena Playhouse in California. He moved to NYC and went eight years without an acting job but never gave up. “I sold ladies’ shoes, polished leather furniture, drove a truck,” he remembered with the BBC. “I think if you have it in you and you want it bad enough, you can do it.”

In his mid-30s, he finally landed his breakout role — and first Academy Award nomination — in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. He was already married to his first wife, Fay, with whom he had son Christopher and daughters Elizabeth and Leslie.

Success took him away from his family, which he came to regret. “I lost touch with my son in terms of advice early on,” he admitted to GQ. “I was doing location films when he was at an age when he needed support and guidance.” Gene has reconciled with his kids in recent years. Says the insider, “He wishes he’d been around more for his children, but now he’s close with them and their kids.”

Gene Hackman at the 1972 Oscars

His decision to step away from the spotlight isn’t such a surprise, since celebrity was never his goal. “I was trained to be an actor, not a star,” he once quipped. “I was trained to play roles, not to deal with fame and agents and lawyers and the press.”

With typical understatement, Gene told GQ he’d like to be remembered “as a decent actor. As someone who tried to portray what was given to him in an honest fashion.” Mission accomplished.

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