What the Hell Happened to Val Kilmer?

Val Kilmer

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 considered by many to be a bloated tabloid joke and his movies go straight to video.

What the hell happened?

At 12, Kilmer landed his first acting job in a TV commercial for a fast food chain.  He walked off the set because he could not find his motivation.  He told the director he could not pretend to like the hamburgers he was advertising.

At the age of 17, he became the youngest person at the time to be accepted into the Julliard School’s Drama Division. This success followed a personal tragedy.  His brother had recently drowned after an epileptic seizure in a swimming pool.

kilmer - the slab boys

Val Kilmer – The Slab Boys – 1983

Kilmer began his career as a stage actor.  He turned down a role in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 film, The Outsiders due to prior theater obligations.  In 1983, he appeared Off Broadway in “The Slab Boys” with Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn.

kilmer - top secret

Val Kilmer -Hot Shots – 1984

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?”’

Val Kilmer - Real Genius - 1985

Val Kilmer – Real Genius – 1985

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.”

Director, Martha Coolidge described Kilmer’s on-set behavior:

“Val was the best guy for the part, but not so easy to work with. He was intellectually challenging and erratic, not so surprising since that was the character. It was a big demanding part and he often avoided working by asked a lot of questions and was sometimes late to the set and moody. He was almost in every scene for about 75 days – and I’m sure he was nervous. I’ve learned to give young actors space and discipline, encouragement and pushing when they need it. I like actors with ideas and he had many.”

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.


Val Kilmer and Michelle Pfeiffer – One Too Many – 1985

Later that year, Kilmer appeared in 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.

The movie was filmed in 1983 when Pfieffer and Kilmer were still unknowns.  It aired two years later as the stars’ careers were heating up.

Next: Top Gun

Posted on May 5, 2011, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Actor and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 429 Comments.

  1. Let’s Remember ‘Willow’ And Look At What The Cast Has Been Up To:

    Val Kilmer (Madmartigan)

    Val Kilmer’s performance as the mercenary with the heart of gold was — along with Real Genius and Top Gun — apart of his early big work on the big screen, and this performance was one that catapulted him to the A-List. Let’s be real: Val Kilmer basically ruled the ’90s. He would go on to star many other films, including The Doors, Tombstone, Batman Forever, Heat, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. He has most recently become the world’s greatest living Mark Twain impersonator. There’s also the lingering possibility that he may one day run for public office, though it would be pretty great to see him get a Michael Keaton-esque stab at a comeback.

    Fun fact: Kilmer and actress Joanne Whalley met while working on the film. They were married later in 1988, and they have two children. The two would eventually divorce in 1996.


  2. 10 Actors Whose Craziness Got Them Kicked Out Of Hollywood:

    Val Kilmer

    You don’t see Val Kilmer much nowadays, do you? Could that be a result of his huge and crazy ego, perhaps, which means that almost nobody wants to work with him?

    Val Kilmer always had a reputation for being a bit crazy, of course, but there came a point where Hollywood decided that it could get by perfectly fine without Kilmer and his antics, thank you very much, and decided to stop putting up with his sh*t. Just like that.

    Because Kilmer was reportedly a nightmare to work with on pretty much every movie he ever made, including Tombstone, The Island of Dr. Moreau and Batman Forever (the list goes on) – serious to a fault and armed with an ego unlike anybody had ever seen (even in Hollywood), he also fell out with Tom Cruise on Top Gun – one of Hollywood’s biggest players – which only helped to stall his career and cement his eventual decline.

    After word of mouth got around, Kilmer’s reputation hit toxic levels and the community of Tinseltown threw up their collective hands and said: That’s enough, Val. We’re done.”


  3. Full Metal Jacket and Its Troubled Production:

    Modine opens the book personally. He was just starting to make money as an actor. He bought a house with his wife. Val Kilmer was talking s*** about him. Modine may or may not have gotten the role of Joker because of Kilmer. Modine tells a story about how he and actor David Allen Grier were out to dinner in New York City when Modine saw Kilmer looking at him and cursing. Grier went over to see what was what and Kilmer bitched that Modine was cast in some Vietnam movie that Stanley Kubrick was making. Modine said he wasn’t aware of it, but hey, what a great idea. He sent in clips from Birdy as an audition. Kubrick cast him in spite of the clip he never watched which he deemed a shouting match.


  4. I will admit, since stumbling onto this site recently, I have been quite stuck on it and find a lot of the reads entertaining. But there are a couple of things I must point out

    1,-You do seem to downplay certain roles calling them “small” that really arent that small. For instance, you say that Kilmer had a small role in Deja Vu, he’s actually in a pretty good chunk of that movie and its kind of disrespectful to say otherwise. To have 3rd or 4th billing in a Hollywood made production is very good. Its not like he was the doorman and said “here’s your morning paper sir” and dissapeared.

    2-I noticed you keep saying certain films made a small profit and thats really not the case. A film that makes a few dollars more than the budget hurts. A film often splits 50% with the distributor, and basically has to make 3 times the budget to be profitable.

    Simple math, if a film cost 10 Million and makes 20 million, the company will pretty much break even. It would have to rely on DVD sales and rentals to offset some of the advertising cost and to produce some type of profit. So a film like TITANIC costing 200million, definately needed to clear 600 million. But clearly that gamble paid off.

    Other than that, keep up the good work!


    • Thanks Kelly. I’m glad you found the site and seem to be mostly enjoying the articles. I think you raise some valid points. Let me try to address them.

      1. There’s an old saying that “there are no small roles, only small actors.” When I refer to a role as “small” I’m usually talking about screen time. It’s been a while since I watched Deja Vu so I may be off on that one. But my recollection was that Kilmer wasn’t on-screen more than a quarter of the movie’s overall runtime. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call the part a supporting role. Billing is important and third or fourth billing can be significant. Although I would argue that anything after top billing in a movie like Deja Vu doesn’t count for much. That movie was sold mostly on Washington’s star power. Check out the poster:

      Jerry Bruckheimer and Tony Scott were bigger selling points than Kilmer. I would wager that most ticket buyers going to see Deja Vu in 2006 had no idea Kilmer was in the movie when they bought their tickets.

      1. Box office is even trickier to talk about. There is no one formula for calculating the profitability of a movie. Hollywood accounting is more art than science. If a movie earns back it’s production budget domestically, I agree it didn’t turn a profit. The rule of thumb I have gone by is that a movie should earn back twice its production costs in the US to be profitable. But with a lot of movies making more overseas than they do in the US and all the complexities involved in international profits, there just isn’t a good formula. Your “3 times” rule seems extremely conservative to me. But on a movie where marketing costs were sky-high, I’m sure there are times when that is true.

      I don’t want to and am not equipped to break down the accounting of every movie I cover. I don’t think most readers would be interested in that even if I could. The general idea is to give a sense of “hit”, “miss”, “disappointment”, “home run” or “flop”. I probably should avoid the word “profit” because it falls into a grey area. More recent articles tend to talk about box office in terms of placement in relation to other releases as opposed to “profitability”.

      Any way, thanks for the feedback. I’ll keep these points in mind going forward and as I revise some of the older articles.


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