What the Hell Happened to Val Kilmer?
In the 80′s, Val Kilmer was Tom Cruise’s rival both on-screen and off. Top Gun launched the actor to super stardom and Batman cemented his status at the top of the A-list. But then, Kilmer’s career spiraled out of control. Today, the former sex symbol is a bloated tabloid joke and his movies go straight to video.
What the hell happened?
Kilmer began his career as a stage actor. At the age of 17, he became the youngest person at the time to be accepted into the Juilliard School’s Drama Division. He turned down a role in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 film, The Outsiders (which co-starred future Maverick, Tom Cruise) due to prior theater obligations. In 1983, he appeared Off Broadway in “The Slab Boys” with Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn.
Kilmer transitioned from stage to screen with an ABC Afterschool Special about the dangers of drunk driving titled One Too Many. And yes, that is a young Michelle Pfeiffer as his co-star. Kilmer was so taken with Pfieffer that he wrote a book of poems entitled My Eden After Burns that included poems inspired by the future Catwoman. Pfeiffer was married to the director, Peter Horton at the time.
I believe a clip is in order.
Kilmer’s first big break came in 1984 when he landed the lead role in the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker spoof, Top Secret.
Kilmer played an American rock and roll star in the mold of Elvis Presley who gets roped into the world of espionage while touring East Germany. Kilmer sang all of his own songs and released an album under his character’s name.
The film got mixed reviews and disappointed at the box office. Top Secret opened at #7 beaten out by both Rhinestone and The Karate Kid. But over time, Top Secret has become a cult film. While it’s not a classic like Airplane!, it is better than your average spoof with many genuinely funny moments.
Co=director Jim Abrahams, remembered conflicts with Kilmer even at the start of his career. ”We would all butt heads when we couldn’t define a motivation for his character. He wanted to know who Nick Rivers was and why he would say things, and in the context of a parody, you think, ‘Is it really so important?”’
The following year, Kilmer starred in another cult comedy classic, 1985′s Real Genius.
Kilmer played a student at a school for geniuses who is building a laser for his senior project. Although his character is not the lead, Kilmer steals the show with a manic performance. He delivers one quotable punchline after another.
Producer, Brian Grazer described Kilmer’s on-set behavior thusly: ”He would just evaporate. No one could find him.” He went on to say, ”There’s always a point when I work with him when I vow not to work with him again.”
In spite of mostly positive reviews, Real Genius also disappointed at the box office. But like Top Secret!, it has gained cult status on video.
Kilmer followed up lead roles in two quirky comedies with the 1986 smash, Top Gun directed by Tony Scott.
Although it received mixed reviews, Top Gun tapped into the nation’s swelling patriotism during the Reagan years and became a huge hit at the box office.
Its success cemented Tom Cruise as a box office star and changed Kilmer’s career forever. In the film, Kilmer plays Tom Cruise’s rival, Iceman. Reportedly, the rivalry carried over into real life. Rumors have swirled for years of an on-set fist fight between Kilmer and Cruise although what exactly happened has never been confirmed. Supposedly, Kilmer knocked Cruise out cold.
Kilmer came out on top in the short term. But who’s laughing now, Ice Man?
Top Gun took Kilmer from quirky comedian into action hunk territory. In 1988, he tried to cement his leading-man status in the George Lucas-produced fantasy, Willow. Unfortunately, Willow was closer to Howard the Duck than Star Wars.
The reviews were mixed, though most enjoyed Kilmer’s humorous take on the reluctant hero. Willow failed to live up to expectations at the box office. Despite the good notices, Kilmer was not yet a star.
In 1989, Kilmer’s rise to fame suffered a set-back. He starred opposite his Willow co-star and future wife, Joanne Whalley in the thriller, Kill Me Again. The movie was trashed by critics and bombed at the box office. He also appeared in a TV movie about Billy the Kid.
Kilmer’s next significant role was as Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s biopic, The Doors.
The Doors co-starred MacLachlan and Meg Ryan. Kilmer reportedly spent several thousand dollars of his own money to film a video of himself as Morrison in order to land the role. Kilmer’s intense dedication to the role is evident on-screen and in his musical performances.
While most critics praised Kilmer, the film itself got mostly negative reviews and underperformed at the box office.
Kilmer followed up The Doors with Thunderheart in 1992.
This time, the reviews were mostly positive. But the Native American-themed mystery didn’t catch on with audiences. Although it has generated a small cult following over the years.
Kilmer admitted to conflicts with director Michael Apted. ”I drove him crazy, and he said so right away. I wasn’t satisfied with certain aspects of the story, so I kept working on them…. I’m very unhappy when I don’t know what I’m doing or not given the facility to find out.”
1993 was a busy year for Kilmer. It started off slowly with the utterly forgettable Kim Basinger heist movie, The Real McCoy. The couple had so little chemistry on-screen that it caused Basinger’s Vicki Vale to be written out of Batman Forever.
When Michael Keaton was set to star in the third Batman film, Warner Brothers wanted to bring back Basinger’s Vicki Vale character from the first film. But when Keaton left and Kilmer took on the role, the studio remembered how they stunk up the screen in The Real McCoy and decided to create a new love interest for Kilmer’s Batman.
According to one exec on the set of The Real McCoy, Kilmer once became enraged when a scene wasn’t altered to his liking. Kilmer reportedly started firing his prop gun at a car.
Later that year, Kilmer co-starred opposite Kurt Russell in the western, Tombstone.
Tombstone had a lot working against it. Kevin Costner was developing his own Wyatt Earp biopic with director Lawrence Kasdan. Costner put pressure on other studios not to release the competing Earp movie. The only studio that would defy Costner was Buena Vista.
The writer and original director of Tombstone, Kevin Jarre, and Kurt Russell both wanted to cast Willem Dafoe as Doc Holiday. But Buena Vista refused based on Dafoe’s role in the controversial Last Temptation of Christ. Since no other studio would touch the movie, Jarre and Russell went with their second choice, Kilmer.
Kilmer clashed with Jarre as a director. Years later, Kilmer told a reporter about an argument over Kilmer’s wardrobe. ”I found it a little inconvenient that the first director insisted on our wearing real wool. ‘It has to be real wool. You can tell the difference.’ Well, you can’t, Kevin Jarre — you can’t tell the difference between real wool and any blend, even in a macro close-up, okay?”
Early into production, Jarre was fired as director. On the recommendation of Sylvester Stallone, Russell enlisted George P. Cosmatos to direct. Cosmatos had directed Stallone in Rambo and Cobra. After Cosmatos’ death, Russell claimed that he had actually directed Tombstone himself and Cosmatos served as a ghost director.
In the battle of the Wyatt Earp films, Tombstone came out on top. Costner’s Earp was an expensive flop.
While it’s really a footnote in his career, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Val Kilmer’s appearance as an Elvis-like apparition in 1993′s Quentin Tarrantino-written and Tony Scott-directed True Romance.
True Romance starred Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette. Kilmer’s role is really just one of many cameos in the film. But it gave the actor a certain amount of street cred among the film’s cult fans. (Brad Pitt’s cameo was the best though!)
By now, Kilmer had paid his dues. With 1995′s Batman Forever, it was finally time for him to make the A-list. When Michael Keaton decided he was rich enough not to have to deal with any more shitty Batman movies, Val Kilmer was picked to usher in the Age of Schumacher.
Opinions on Kilmer’s turn as Batman are divided. For my money, he looked okay in the Batsuit. But he slept-walked through his scenes as Bruce Wayne.
In recent interviews, Joel Schumacher picked Kilmer as the best screen Batman. Over Keaton. Over Bale. Even over Adam West. You might think this is unsurprising given that Schumacher cast Kilmer in the role. But remember, Schumacher would go on to fire him before Batman and Robin.
Despite the fact that nobody really liked it very much, Batman Forever was a huge hit at the box office. It was lighter and more kid-friendly than the previous Batman movie which gave Joel Schumacher a lot of pull with Warner Brothers when it came time to make a sequel.
This was unfortunate for Kilmer. His on-set antics put him at odds with Schumacher. Schumacher claimed that the fights escalated into a shoving match. The end result was that Kilmer was out as Batman after only one film.
Schumacher recounted working with Kilmer on Batman Forever. “He was being irrational and ballistic with the first AD, the cameraman, the costume people. He was badly behaved, rude and inappropriate…We had two weeks where he did not speak to me, but it was bliss.”
In 1995, Kilmer also appeared in a supporting role in Michael Mann’s Heat. The buzz on Heat was all about the pairing of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. To the degree that it’s actually easy to forget that Kilmer’s in the film.
Much like True Romance, Heat adds to Kilmer’s street cred if nothing else. And you know he had to love appearing in a film with two screen icons.
In 1996 Kilmer appeared opposite another screen icon in the infamous Island of Dr. Moreau. This turkey has to be seen to be believed. On the level of a surreal piece of camp, it’s a hoot with Marlon Brando under pounds of pancake make-up and Kilmer just being batshit crazy.
The legendary Brando was unimpressed with Kilmer’s on-set behavior and told him so saying, “You are confusing your talent with the size of your paycheck.”
Kilmer’s antics on Moreau are the stuff of legend. He was going through a divorce from Willow co-star Joanne Whalley at the time and decided he wanted his part reduced by 40%.
This forced director Richard Stanley to recast him in a smaller role and to give the lead role to Rob Morrow. Kilmer then thanked Stanley for his flexibility by getting him fired. Morrow realized he was on a sinking ship and he bailed with the canned director.
Reportedly, Kilmer also burned a cameraman with a cigarette and drove veteran director John Frankenheimer insane.
Frankenheimer told the press, “There are two things I will never ever do in my whole life. The first is that I will never climb Mt. Everest. The second is that I will never work with Val Kilmer ever again.” When Kilmer filmed his last scene, Frankenheimer cried to the crew “Now get that bastard off my set!”
Kilmer rebounded later that year with the Michael Douglas film, The Ghost and the Darkness. Once again, Kilmer played a somewhat unstable and unlikable foil. The film was a mild hit despite mixed reviews. But after Dr. Moreau, it must have felt like a grand slam.
Kilmer received a Razzie nomination that year for Worst Supporting Actor for his work in The Ghost and the Darkness and The Island of Dr. Moreau.
In 1997, Kilmer made an attempt to return to the spotlight with the big screen adaptation of TV’s The Saint.
The Saint had been in production limbo for years. Several famous actors turned down the role before Kilmer finally agreed to star. When he was cast, Kilmer insisted on a rewrite by Wesley Strick to make thr script more to his liking.
The film was directed by Philip Noyce and co-starred Elisabeth Shue. The original cut of the film included Shue’s character’s death about two thirds of the way through the movie. But audience didn’t like Shue’s death and so the movie was recut with a happier ending.
Ultimately, The Saint got mixed reviews and disappointed at the box office. The planned franchise stalled out after just one movie.
Kilmer followed-up The Saint with voice-over work as Moses in Dreamwork’s pre-Shrek Old Testament cartoon, The Prince of Egypt in 1998.
And in 1999, he played a blind dude who found love with Mira Sorvino. I’m just now realizing that Val Kilmer is like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon when it comes to What the Hell Happened? Somehow, career implosion is never far behind with this guy.
Kilmer’s next starring role was in the sci-fi dud, Red Planet. Sadly, I know I’ve seen this movie. But for the life of me, I can’t remember a damned thing about it. I keep getting it confused with the equally forgettable Mission to Mars starring Lt. Dan.
The most notable thing about Red Planet was yet another Kilmer feud. This time it was with co-star Tom Sizemore whom Kilmer refused to address by name.
By this point, the main stream roles started to dry up for Kilmer. The next movie of any note was probably 2003′s Wonderland in which Kilmer played porn star John Holmes. Wonderland promised to be an edgy art film. But reviews were mixed and audiences skipped it.
Kilmer’s career was entering free fall with many of his movies going straight to video. Oliver Stone attempted a rescue by casting Kilmer as the fat, one-eyed king of Macedon in 2004′s Alexander. Unfortunately, Alexander was an infamous bomb which at best contributed to Kilmer’s career spiral.
Thank god, Angelina Jolie escaped unharmed. Colin Farrel wasn’t so lucky.
Kilmer got another shot at redemption in 2005′s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang co-starring with future Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. Downey was rehabbing his career after legal entanglements from years of drug use. In a show of solidarity, Kilmer pledged not to drink during the entire 3-month shoot.
Notice, he didn’t say anything about staying sober…
While the critics were kind to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, audiences were not. Downey would go on to a remarkable rebound with box office hits like Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes. Kilmer would go on to voice the car in the Knight Rider re-do.
But Val Kilmer would not go silently into that good night (rider). He still pops up from time to time in movies like The Bad Lieutenant and MacGruber. Almost no one sees these movies, but he’s in them.
So, what the hell happened? Obviously, Kilmer burned a lot of bridges. You’ll find some people who will defend Kilmer and his dedication to his craft. But the reason they have to defend Kilmer is that he has acted like a prima donna to such an extent that even people in Hollywood who are used to dealing with prima donnas got sick of his shit and decided they didn’t want to play with him anymore.
Also, there’s this:
There’s no other way to put this. Val Kilmer got fat. And not just flabby. He got pregnant-man fat.
Now, I’m not one to make fun of a middle-aged guy putting on some weight. Brother, I’ve been there. But when you make millions of dollars in a job that is contingent on staying in shape, maybe you should listen to the nutritionist and put the donuts down.
I mean, most of us sit behind a desk for 40+ hours a week and then have to deal with kids and chores. Yeah, we let ourselves go. But stars like Kilmer have resources that aren’t available to the common man. Which makes it hard to believe that Ice Man can turn into a beached whale.
Eventually, they just went ahead and made him King of Bacchus at Mardis Gras for Fat Tuesday in 2009.
Just when it seemed like Kilmer couldn’t sink any lower, he did this to Paris Hilton:
My eyes! My eyes! Make it stop!
What have I missed? Bad career choices, tabloid scandals, drug use, alcoholism, weight gain, on-set temper tantrums, fist fights, tonguining a hotel heiress, and The Island of Dr. Moreau. I think that just about covers what the hell happened to Val Kilmer.
Kim Basinger Thora Birch Matthew Broderick Nicolas Cage Phoebe Cates Chevy Chase Kevin Costner Geena Davis Bridget Fonda Brendan Fraser Mel Gibson Cuba Gooding Jr. Heather Graham Melanie Griffith Steve Guttenberg Daryl Hannah Helen Hunt Michael Keaton Nicole Kidman Val Kilmer Jude Law Jennifer Jason Leigh Penelope Ann Miller Demi Moore Rick Moranis Eddie Murphy Mike Myers Michelle Pfeiffer Molly Ringwald Meg Ryan Winona Ryder Arnold Schwarzenegger Steven Seagal Elisabeth Shue Alicia Silverstone Christian Slater Mira Sorvino Wesley Snipes Sharon Stone Mena Suvari Uma Thurman John Travolta Kathleen Turner Robin Williams Debra Winger Sean Young Renee Zellweger