The other day Val Kilmer was on the Conan show, pushing his live Mark Twain play called Citizen Twain at the Pasadena Playhouse. Conan showed pictures of Kilmer in costume—white hair, mustache, heavy prosthetics, dandy white suit, bow-tie—greeting audience members as they entered the auditorium, lying across several seats as they walked into the theater.
Who else but Val Kilmer?
Who else, indeed?
Kilmer comes from the eccentric James Franco/Crispin Glover/Nicolas Cage/Klaus Kinski school of actors who are pretty much up for anything.
A live musical production of The Ten Commandments in which he plays Moses? Check! A turn as notorious porn star John Holmes in Wonderland? Count him in! The voice of the car KITT in a TV reboot of Knight Rider? Sure thing! A third-rate mystery writer who does impressions of Marlon Brando and James Mason in Francis Coppola’s recent ghost story Twixt? Why the hell not!?
Val Kilmer has been around for nearly 30 years, making a big splash as rock and roll spy Nick Rivers in Top Secret! (1983), a loony spin on Elvis, beach party movies and spy thrillers from the folks that gave us Airplane! and The Naked Gun films.
The 25-year-old Kilmer’s vital and game performance got him lots of attention, despite the film’s less-than-enthusiastic box-office reception. Already a seasoned stage performer and the youngest person to enter Julliard’s drama program (at the age of 17!), Kilmer seemed destined for big things on the screen.
In quick succession, he got key roles in the smarter-than-you-expected teen farce Real Genius (1985), as a legendary science wizard who develops a powerful laser; in the megahit Top Gun (1985) as the by-the-letters flyer “Iceman”; and as Madmartigan, a wily swordsman who helps little person Warwick Davis protect a baby while battling trolls, monsters and an evil queen, in Ron Howard’s Willow (1988).
Of the latter, Rita Kempley of the Washington Post wrote: “With this key performance, a deliriously silly mix of Toshiro Mifune and Harrison Ford, he (Kilmer) promises to win himself a place in the pantheon of ‘Spunky Guys to Die For.’”
And then, things got interesting,
First, Kilmer, after a fling with Cher, hooked up romantically with Willow co-star Joanne Whalley, whom he married in 1988. The two starred together in the contemporary film noir Kill Me Again. Then he took on a mix of movies—some commercial, some more out-there—that solidified him as a versatile screen presence who was ready, willing and able to try—and typically pull off—anything.
He WAS Jim Morrison, the “lizard king” leader of
The Doors, in Oliver Stone’s trippy 1991 biopic. So spot-on was his work, that surviving members of the group had trouble detecting whether the vocals were Kilmer’s or those of the late singer. For the performance, Kilmer reportedly spent a year in preparation, losing weight, hanging out at Morrison’s old digs, having people call him “Jim.”
Two years later, he was yet another rock icon, dispensing inspiration to imperiled lead character Clarence (Christian Slater) as Elvis Presley—called “Mentor”– in a bit part in director Tony Scott’s True Romance, written by Quentin Tarantino.
Also, Kilmer explored his own Cherokee ancestry (he’s also part Irish, German and Swedish) in Thunderheart, playing an FBI agent with Native-American roots who teams with veteran operative Sam Shepherd to track down a killer on a South Dakota Sioux reservation.
But despite these impressive turns, the highlight of perhaps Kilmer’s career was his roguish, tuberculosis-ridden Doc Holliday to Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, the 1993 sagebrusher that may have won the scene-swiping Kilmer an Academy Award nomination if its studio (Disney) had shown some interest in its release.
“I’m your huckleberry…” says Kilmer’s sweaty, recently deputized Holiday, fessing up to Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) that he’s the guy he’s looking for before they square off.
Despite the lack of studio support, Tombstone did well—especially when compared to Lawrence Kasdan’s expensive Kevin Costner/Dennis Quaid-starring epic Wyatt Earp, issued the next year.
Soon after, Kilmer was Hollywood’s “huckleberry,” cast in the highest profile role imaginable, taking Michael Keaton’s spot as the Caped Crusader in Batman Forever. The world’s first and only blonde Gotham City crime fighter, Batman took on Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) and the Riddler (Jim Carrey) with help from sidekick Robin (Chris O’Donnell), and as Bruce Wayne romanced Dr. Chase Meridian, played by Nicole Kidman.
The film did well enough to warrant another cowled casting, but the series’ tendency to emphasize the villains over the hero, and several altercations with helmer Joel Schumacher, led Kilmer to ignore the bright Bat Signal.
Over the years, Kilmer famously skipped high profile roles in Point Break, Blue Velvet, Indecent Proposal, Collateral, Interview with a Vampire, and other big time projects. He’s an actor who often chooses parts based works on hunches, does tireless preparation for his roles and is not above doing favors for friends on scale. He’s also done films in New Orleans to help the post-Katrina economy, wrote a book of poetry (inspired by Michelle Pfeiffer!) and recorded an album of music a few years ago.
Kilmer, who fancies himself as a character actor with “leading man good looks,” is set to make his directorial debut with a project that will take the Samuel L. Clemens act one step further. Mark Twain and Mary Baker Eddy will focus on the rivalry between the humorist and the founder of Christian Science. Kilmer, incidentally, was born a Christian Scientist.
Along with many films that never found theatrical audiences but have won a following on DVD and on cable TV, Kilmer has done some of his best post-Batman work by etching indelible characters in many genres. There’s Heat, the much-beloved 1995 Michael Mann crime drama that boasts Kilmer as hood who wants out of his gambling debts by pulling off a big heist with criminal mastermind Robert De Niro; 2002’s much-underrated The Salton Sea, with Kilmer as a horn-tooting meth addict looking for a final score from a dealer named Poohbear (Vincent D’Onofrio); 2004’s Spartan, written and directed by David Mamet, another box-office underperformer with the actor as a tough undercover agent given the task of saving the U.S. president’s kidnapped daughter; and 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Shane Black’s oddball modern crime spoof with Robert Downey, Jr. as a petty thief who stumbles into the world of acting and Kilmer as his unpredictable cop-turned-mentor. Wrote Mark Kermode in the Observer: “Kilmer…puts the caricaturedly matinee-idol good looks which once fuelled his narcissism to fine comic effect as the coiffured cad whose machismo is only enhanced by his sexuality.”
In the past, Val Kilmer’s idiosyncratic personality has gotten in the way of some of several working relationships in Hollywood. There was the aforementioned tiff with Joel Schumacher in which the director ended up calling the actor “the most psychologically troubled human being I’ve ever worked with.”
Meanwhile, 1996’s outré version of The Island of Dr. Moreau was riddled with problems before it even started to shoot. Replacement director John Frankenheimer had his share of knotty situations with the unpredictable Marlon Brando, but exclaimed “Now get that bastard off my set!” upon Kilmer’s completing his final scene in the picture. He later publicly added that “There are two things I will never ever do in my whole life: I will never climb Mt. Everest, and I will never work with Val Kilmer ever again.”
Apparently, Kilmer’s eccentricities started early: When he was just 12 years old, he walked off the set of his first job, a hamburger commercial. He claimed he couldn’t get motivated because he didn’t like the hamburgers in the advertisement.
Well, it was after all Mark Twain who said “To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence.”