Val Kilmer crafted the persona of a serious, brooding (often labeled “difficult”) actor in such films as “Heat” and “Tombstone,” so it’s interesting to remember that his film debut was in the goofy spy spoof “Top Secret!” in 1984, followed by the comedy “Real Genius” in 1985. Kilmer would go on to show his comedy chops in films including “MacGruber” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” but there has long been an air of mystery around him, perhaps because he hasn’t been giving big interviews lately. That makes the publication of his memoir, “I’m Your Huckleberry,” all the more cause for celebration. In his autobiography, from Simon & Schuster, Kilmer is brutally frank about his career, his loves and battle with throat cancer.
Early Years, Famous Faces
Kilmer spent his formative years in the Chatsworth neighborhood of Los Angeles, which feels much further from Hollywood than distance would suggest. “We lived next door to Roy Rogers and too close for comfort to Charles Manson,” Kilmer writes, noting that he used to ride horses at the infamous Spahn Ranch. He attended Chatsworth High School alongside future Oscar winner Kevin Spacey and future Emmy winner Mare Winningham, whom he says “became my first real girlfriend.” He auditioned for Juilliard, which he refers to as “THE Juilliard School” throughout his book, where he completed all four years, despite rebelling against what he felt was a style based on instilling fear in students.
More from Variety
Stage Revolving Doors
While still at Juilliard, Kilmer co-wrote and appeared in “How It All Began,” which moved from the school to Broadway after Joseph Papp saw it. “I graduated on a Friday, and on Monday we were doing a tech rehearsal at Papp’s prestigious Public Theater,” Kilmer writes of the show, which would run six weeks. He thought his big break would be in 1983’s “Slab Boys.” Kilmer turned down a role in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Outsiders” for the play, which saw him demoted twice, first when Kevin Bacon joined the show, then again when Sean Penn came on board.
A Reluctant Iceman
Following “Top Secret!” and “Real Genius,” Kilmer was courted by director Tony Scott for the blockbuster “Top Gun.” Kilmer is frank about his feelings. “I didn’t want the part. I didn’t care about the film. The story didn’t interest me.” He was won over by Scott’s enthusiasm and the promise that his role would improve from the initial script. And Kilmer’s performance as hotshot pilot Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, nemesis to Tom Cruise’s character, remains one of his most beloved. Kilmer is set to reprise the role in the film’s sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick,” due out later this year. According to Kilmer, he wasn’t contacted about the film, but reached out to the producers to pitch himself. “The producers went for it. Cruise went for it.” Kilmer is mum on further details, writing: “As far as the film’s plot goes, I’m sworn to secrecy.”
The Good and the Bad
Kilmer named his book after a famous line uttered by his character Doc Holliday in “Tombstone,” one of his most memorable roles. Though the shoot was plagued with problems — the original director was replaced during shooting — he loved working with Kurt Russell and is proud of the resulting film. He also has fond memories of playing Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie “The Doors.” He told Variety in 2018 he went to great lengths to prepare for the part. “I wore those Jim Morrison leathers for a year. And recorded five entire albums …that was unusual.” On the other end of the spectrum, he discusses the notorious flop, 1996’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” Kilmer had become friends with Marlon Brando and looked forward to working with him, but soon realized the movie, which also changed directors, was a disaster. He writes that Brando took it in stride. “That night Marlon said to me, ‘It’s a job now, Val. A lark. We’ll get through it.’ I was as sad as I’ve ever been on a set.”
On the Mend
In the opening chapter of “I’m Your Huckleberry,” Kilmer addresses finding a lump in his throat that turned out to be cancer. He went to stay with his ex-girlfriend Cher at her home in Malibu, and woke up one night vomiting blood. He eventually underwent two tracheotomies and says the cancer has healed, but notes: “Speaking, once my joy and lifeblood, has become an hourly struggle.” He also states that he sounds like “Marlon Brando after a couple bottles of tequila.” One of his first roles after beating cancer was as the creepy title character in 2018’s “The Super,” and he notes, “Fortunately, my speaking part was limited and my rough voice worked well with the character.”
The Artist’s Way
In addition to the plays he’s written, Kilmer has published two books of poetry (including “My Edens After Burns”) and was nominated for a Grammy in 2012 for spoken word album for “The Mark of Zorro.” He’s also a visual artist, and used his money from “Top Gun: Maverick” to fulfill a longtime dream and purchased a gallery space in East Hollywood on the corner of Heliotrope and Melrose called HelMel Studios and Gallery. The mission statement is painted on the wall: “HelMel is a fun, sacred space where electric artists gather to collaborate and, through new technology, inspire giving and spark change in our local community.”
Though he only donned the cape once, for 1995’s “Batman Forever,” he was an excellent fit for the role of Bruce Wayne and Batman. He has fond memories of the role, but notes that his kids remain unimpressed. When his son and daughter were young, he tried to show them the film, writing: “They stayed in the room for about 12 minutes and then quietly walked out. Like a chump, I sat and watched the entire rest of the film.”
Kilmer has played Moses three times: in the animated film “The Prince of Egypt,” on an audio recording for composer-lyricist Walter Robinson and on stage in the 2004 musical “The Ten Commandments.” The latter was an epic train wreck; Kilmer refers to it as “mortifying-at-best,” with actors dropping lines and a set that rarely worked right.
Kilmer wrote and stars in “Citizen Twain,” a one-man show in which he portrays Mark Twain. He has toured the show for years to raves and even made a film version, “Cinema Twain,” in 2019. He told Variety in a 2018 interview, “The response has been so overwhelmingly kind, it’s very humbling. I enjoy the depth and soul the piece has that Twain had for his fellow man and America. And the comedy that’s always so close to the surface, and how valuable his genius is for us today. Still, we battle racism and greed. The same country, it’s greatness and it’s tragedy.”