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, Iceman?
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.
Kilmer played a thief who assists the protagonist played by Warwick Davis on his mission to save a baby. Lucas was essentially ripping off Tolkien pretty shamelessly. Kilmer’s Madmartigan was Aragon crossed with Han Solo.
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.
While filming Willow, Kilmer started a romantic relationship with his co-star Joanne Whalley. The couple married in 1988.
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