Juilliard trained actor Val Kilmer has had a long, bumpy road of a career in Hollywood. The oft-times difficult-to-work-with actor has seen the many highs and the many lows the life of an actor has to offer. Beset by health issues late in his career, Kilmer is finally looking to come back to Hollywood in a big way.
VAL KILMER’S PATH TO STARDOM
Wait, he can sing? YesVal Kilmer began his Hollywood career as Nick Rivers, the rock-n-roll star in the hilariously funny and underrated movie Top Secret! This was the follow-up movie by the trifecta writing and directing crew of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker. They’d just hit it big with their parody comedy hit Airplane!, had moved on to the TV series Police Squad! and once that ended its short run, the trio moved on to Top Secret!
Val Kilmer was cast in his first role as an Elvis Presley-type in this parody of spy/rock-n-roll films that hit on all notes. As Rivers, Kilmer performed his own singing, in fact he even released an album (Nick Rivers) that contained all the songs from the movie.
Val Kilmer’s career was off and running as his next film was another funny one in Real Genius. Then his career took off as the Iceman cometh. His turn in Tom Cruise’s hit Top Gun wasn’t an overly large part, but it was quite a memorable one.
He turned that role into back-to-back TV movies, The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains and then came another star-making turn. As Madmartigan. In Ron Howard’s Willow, Val Kilmer was the selfish, thinks-only-about-himself, reluctant hero swordsman who helps Willow on his journey. Another big hit for Kilmer.
Val Kilmer turned those early hits into more early hits. In Kill Me Again, he co-starred with future wife with whom he met on the set of Willow, Joanne Whalley. He then moved on to another star-making role as Jim Morrison in The Doors. Not only did Kilmer look eerily like the late Morrison, but his singing in the movie matched Morrison too.
VAL KILMER: ACTION STAR
Those mid-80s and early ‘90s were big for Val Kilmer. He went from The Doors to Thunderheart to True Romance to The Real McCoy. Then he landed another one of his famous roles, this time as Doc Holliday in the western Tombstone. It was a role meant for Kilmer as he played Holliday and his sickness to a tee. He was most definitely everyone’s “huckleberry”.
Despite not knowing who the director was or even having an opportunity to read the script, Val Kilmer took on on the role Michael Keaton made famous as Batman. Keaton decided not to return for a third Batman movie as director Tim Burton also left for other ventures, so Val Kilmer snapped up the role of Bruce Wayne, sight unseen. He performed to mixed reviews, some loving his take on the caped crusader, others not caring much for it in comparison to Keaton.
The mixed Batman reviews did nothing to slow down Val Kilmer’s career. He next jumped aboard the crime caper Heat, which starred legends Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. The movies kept rolling on for Kilmer. The Ghost and the Darkness, The Saint, Red Planet, Wonderland (as porn star John Holmes), The Missing, Mindhunters, the big movies never stopped.
Alexander, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Played, Moscow Zero, Val Kilmer continued to add to his vast resume. Along the way though, Kilmer had begun to develop a reputation. And not a good one.
A DIFFICULT ACTOR
Is Val Kilmer a difficult actor to work with? It depends on who you ask. Batman Forever director Joel Schumacher has not been pleasant when asked about Kilmer. He told the Hollywood Reporter, “Batman Forever, when we were on the world tour, it just really went to his head.” Schumacher said. “I’m not going to get into that. He wanted to do Island of Doctor Moreau because Marlon Brando was going to be in it. So he dropped us at the eleventh hour.”
Val Kilmer’s director on his next movie, the aforementioned Island of Doctor Moreau, Richard Staney was also less than enthusiastic when mentioning Kilmer. “Val would arrive, and an argument would happen,” Stanley told Entertainment Weekly. Stanley was replaced and he claimed it was because they wanted to keep Kilmer, who they thought would “bring in money.” He also added about Kilmer, “He’d do [the lines] but he’d throw it all away,” Stanely said. “And he kept insisting on odd bits and pieces of his wardrobe that didn’t make sense, like a piece of blue material wrapped around his arm. It was like, ‘Why is that around his arm, and will he take it off?’” Stanley was eventually replaced by director John Frankenheimer.
Even Val Kilmer himself admitted to The New York Times he has been difficult, “In an unflinching attempt to empower directors, actors and other collaborators to honor the truth and essence of each project, an attempt to breathe Suzukian life into a myriad of Hollywood moments, I had been deemed difficult and alienated the head of every major studio,” he told the Times. “Everyone has to work out their own salvation. How to live and by what morality, and I found that the part that I feel bad about is hurting somebody in the process.”
But not everyone has the same outlook on Val Kilmer. His Tombstone co-star Michael Biehn didn’t have anything positive nor negative to say about Kilmer. He told the Hollywood Reporter, “People ask me what it’s like to work with Val Kilmer. I don’t know. Never met him. Never shook his hand. I know Doc Holliday, but I don’t know [Kilmer].”
Director Irwin Winkler said he reached out to Robert De Niro and director Michael Mann (from Heat) to find out about Val Kilmer before he brought him on board for At First Sight and they had nothing but rave reviews for Val and his work ethic. Same with producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, who produced Kilmer in The Prince of Egypt. “Val was one of the first people cast in The Prince of Egypt. He was there every step of the way; patient, understanding, and phenomenally generous with his time.”
VAL KILMER’S BATTLE WITH CANCER
Co-star and director troubles weren’t all that Val Kilmer has had to deal with. He is also a cancer survivor. Back in 2015, Kilmer was taken to the hospital with what was reported as a possible tumor. Kilmer was quick to respond that no, it was not a tumor or even had tumor operations. It was two years later that Kilmer finally confessed that yes, he did have throat cancer and he had undergone a tracheotomy because of it.
The operation has left Kilmer with a raspy voice and shortness of breath. Talking is difficult for him but it isn’t going to stop him from acting. Val Kilmer is set to appear in Top Gun: Maverick reprising his role as Iceman, nemesis to Tom Cruise’s Maverick.
I’M YOUR HUCKLEBERRY – THE MEMOIR
Val Kilmer has finally let people in. Published earlier this year, I’m Your Huckleberry: A Memoir finds Kilmer as an author, giving the dirt on his life, his acting career, its highs and lows, and his sickness with cancer. It is a candid look at a difficult to judge actor and person, but one he doesn’t shy away from. If you really want to try to understand Val Kilmer, find out who he is in his own words.