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 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 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’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.”
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.
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