Val Kilmer is one of those celebrated and successful actors that you either love to watch or forgot about but will totally recognize their face and the movies you remember them from. The truth is Kilmer is something of a Hollywood legend, having starred in a few of the greatest classics of all time. I mean, have you seen Top Gun, Tombstone, and Batman Forever?
But there’s a lot more to Val Kilmer than his big-name career. There have been rumors surrounding the actor’s feuds with his costars and his turbulent love life. Oh, and then there’s the fact that Kilmer doesn’t sound (or look) anything like he used to back in his heyday. He hasn’t since he had his tracheotomy. You see, the 61-year-old has recently battled throat cancer, and it took his voice. But he still has a lot he wants to say…
Early Signs of Stardom
Val Edward Kilmer was born on December 31, 1959, in Los Angeles. His mother, Gladys Swanette Ekstadt, worked as a real estate developer, and his father, Eugene Dorris Kilmer, was an aerospace equipment distributor. Early on, it was clear to Kilmer’s parents that their son had a natural talent. He was a born performer with a special kind of charisma.
But, really, no one could have predicted how much of a superstar the little kid would turn out to be one day. In his early years, Kilmer displayed his special talent by acting, performing, charming, and impressing everyone he met. He started acting at an early age, taking part in plays and productions while he was still in high school.
Early Family Tragedy
Kilmer went to Chatsworth High School, where he was classmates with another future movie star: Kevin Spacey. Neither of the guys could possibly grasp the future they had in store for them. Kilmer is known for his moving performances as a dramatic actor, which might be partly due to his personal life and the experiences he’s had to deal with in the past.
His parents divorced in 1968 when he was 8 years old. In 1977, Kilmer’s younger brother Wesley, who was diagnosed with epilepsy, drowned in a Jacuzzi at the age of 15. The family was devastated and in grief. For Kilmer, it became clear that he needed to make the most out of every moment.
Textbooks and Auditions
Kilmer was quoted as saying, “Life is precious, and when someone dies, it’s an opportunity to realize how precious it is.” Aside from Chatsworth High School, Kilmer also went to the Hollywood Professional School during his high school years. It was a school that provided education to teenagers who were already working in show business.
It operated only in the mornings so that students could spend the afternoons going to auditions. Kilmer and his peers learned to balance their performing lives with their studies. Kilmer had the time and freedom to hone his craft without missing out on the high school experience. Not many others in his position can say the same.
Making History at Juilliard
After graduating from high school, Kilmer earned a spot at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School, which is a private conservatory for the performing arts. Not only was he accepted — he was the youngest student ever to be accepted to the drama division. Now that he had a place at this selective, world-renowned school, it was just a matter of time before he became a star.
But the young hopeful’s time at Juilliard wasn’t all smooth sailing. Even though (or because) it is one of the most prestigious schools for training young performers, Kilmer found the academy a difficult place to be in. A lot of importance was placed on voice training. All the students in his division were subjected to endless hours of vocal exercises and practicing.
From the Halls to the Stage
The young Kilmer felt himself growing more and more opposed to the authoritarian way the school was run. He wanted to do his own thing and not be bothered with voice training. Little did he know that this skill would prove invaluable to him in his later years.
Despite the difficulties at Juilliard, he nonetheless stuck it out and learned a great deal there – enough to graduate with more ability and skill in acting than he would have otherwise. After Juilliard, Kilmer began exploring the theater scene in New York City. There, he slowly started making a name for himself with successful and well-received stage performances.
Impressing the Fans, Agents, and, of Course, the Ladies
Kilmer was starting to turn heads, and it wasn’t just fans and agents who were impressed with him. It was during this period in the early ‘80s that Kilmer started to gain a reputation on the New York City stage scene as not just a promising actor, but also a ladies’ man. Sure, many women were interested in the new hopeful, but there was one woman in particular who stood out.
One particular relationship that began during this period stayed with Kilmer through the rest of his life, his relationship with showbiz legend Cher. She and Kilmer dated for a number of years, and although they eventually went their separate ways, they maintained a friendship that endured through the ups and downs in both their lives.
Making It Big in the ‘80s
In the mid-‘80s, Kilmer’s career really took off. His big-screen debut came in 1984 with the spoof spy movie, Top Secret! (from the makers of Airplane!). The slapstick comedy saw Val, a handsome young guy with a jaw like the bottom half of a stop sign and golden hair, who seemed to be in on the joke (in an era where the good-looking guy was usually the butt of it).
He then landed a supporting role in 1985’s Real Genius. But his next movie, playing alongside Tom Cruise in 1986’s Top Gun, was the film that really placed Kilmer on the Hollywood map. Finally, his hard work and torturous school years paid off.
A Fling with Michelle Pfeiffer?
A year before Top Gun, in 1985, Kilmer acted in an ABC afterschool special called One Too Many. Famed actress Michelle Pfeiffer was also in the special, and rumors started swirling around about the two having a secret romance, but they never confirmed it. Two years later, in 1987, he wrote a poem about her.
He called it “The Pfeiffer Howls at the Moon.” Was he inspired by a backstage romance or a deep friendship? It looks like we might never know. But Kilmer’s dream relationship was right around the corner… in more ways than one. One night that year, Kilmer said that he had a very strange dream.
Willow Brought Him to Whalley
Kilmer described how he dreamed of meeting a mysterious and beautiful woman, falling deeply in love with her. He said that when he woke up, he was so inspired by the dream that he wrote a poem about it. He called it “We’ve Just Met but Marry Me Please.” It turned out that Kilmer’s dream was about to come true.
His next role was in the 1988 classic dark fantasy, Willow, where he played a swordsman. Joanne Whalley and Warwick Davis were also in the movie. As Kilmer and Whalley spent time together on the set, they formed a bond that neither of them could resist. It looked like his dream was becoming real.
More and More Doors Opening for Him
Kilmer and Whalley had an instant connection, and the lovebirds tied the knot in 1988. At this point, it seemed as though Val Kilmer had it all: a promising film career, critical acclaim and praise, and now he was married to the woman of his dreams. Soon, even more, “doors” were about to open. In 1991, he starred in Oliver Stone’s biopic, The Doors, playing the one and only Jim Morrison.
Not only did Kilmer receive praise for his role as Morrison, but he also got the chance to show off his singing skills on the film’s soundtrack. It is not surprising that after this film, Kilmer was regarded as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
Becoming a Hollywood Heartthrob
In the early ‘90s, Kilmer was living the dream. In 1991, Kilmer and Whalley welcomed their first child to the world: their daughter Mercedes. Soon, Kilmer’s success — on and off-screen — was about to reach even greater heights. 1993 saw him in two popular and successful movies, both of which achieved cult status.
First, he played the legendary gunslinger, Doc Holliday, in George P. Cosmatos’ Tombstone. Then, he played Elvis Presley in Quentin Tarantino and Tony Scott’s True Romance. Kilmer was emerging as a Hollywood heartthrob. While that status had its advantages, it caused significant problems for him in his professional life.
Getting Typecast as the Hero
It was around this time that Kilmer, as well as his fans, ran into a problem. The consensus was that if you’re good at acting and you’re a hunk (who’s willing to take your shirt off), then you’re the perfect candidate for a promotion. And Kilmer leveled up. Soon enough, he was the guy cast that was in leads that were designed to be blockbusters, such as Batman Forever, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and The Saint.
The thing is, Kilmer wasn’t happy with the direction his career was going in. As a classically trained actor, he wanted to take on more serious and challenging roles. Unfortunately for him, as the years went by, he found himself continually being typecast as the handsome hero.
Problems on the Set
Around this time, Kilmer was starting to be seen as difficult to work with. It possibly had something to do with the fact that he was reluctant to take on some of those blockbuster roles. There were also reports of him causing problems on set —namely that he was constantly complaining and making impossible demands.
He was accused of being rude to his co-stars, staying in character all the time, and not bothering to carry out the necessary niceties that come with being on set. Apparently, he fought with Oliver Stone about glorifying substance abuse in the film about Jim Morrison. There was another problem with The Doors movie that came before the film even began…
(A Little Too) Committed to the Method
During the casting phase, Kilmer, committed to method acting, reportedly became too aggressive with a woman in an audition in front of Stone and the casting director. He got caught up in an emotionally charged moment. That incident actually resulted in a court settlement. According to Kilmer, though, the actress attacked him.
The casting director said that both actors were being physical with each other in the heat of the moment. When it came to his time on the Batman Forever set, Joel Schumacher called Kilmer “psychotic” in an interview. There are different versions of why George Clooney replaced him…
Replaced by George Clooney
Why did Clooney replace him? Well, Kilmer said it was due to scheduling difficulties with the other film contract he had at the time (The Saint). It must have been a real blow, though, to hear that he was being replaced in one of the biggest comic book franchises ever. Directed by Schumacher and produced by Tim Burton, Batman Forever was the highest-grossing film of the year.
It made $336.6 million at the box office, after all. But Kilmer didn’t merely want to make the big bucks — he wanted to make art. And his frequent fights with Schumacher were proof that he wasn’t having it. Even though Batman Forever turned out to be one of Kilmer’s most successful films, the role was not satisfying enough for him.
The Outfit, Not the Man
One day, Kilmer met Warren Beatty’s children, and to entertain the kids, he dressed up in his Batman suit. As the kids seemed to be less interested in talking to the actor and more into trying on the outfit, Kilmer realized that it wasn’t the character who made the movie — it was the outfit.
Multiple sources claimed that while shooting The Island of Doctor Moreau, Kilmer put his lit cigarette out on a crew member’s sideburn. Kilmer claimed that it was an accident resulting from the cinematographer asking him to blow smoke, off-camera, towards where a member of the camera crew was standing. “What kind of person would singe a fellow worker he spends 15 hours a day with, often less than a foot apart? Madness,” Kilmer stated.
His Feud with Tom Cruise
There was also the rumor about his Top Gun costar, Tom Cruise. It has long been said that Kilmer was engaged in a feud with Cruise while on the set of the film. Many suspect that it was because of Cruise’s tendency to take the leading blockbuster roles rather than the grittier, more challenging performances. In interviews, Kilmer spoke about Cruise often, particularly his inclination to run back towards these kinds of movies.
“I have nothing against Tom Cruise, but he must have a large capacity to deal with the business side of movies,” Kilmer said in 1995. Who knows – maybe he was jealous that Cruise was getting all the leads? There was also his falling out with director Michael Apted during the filming of the movie Thunderheart.
Calling It Quits
Despite his dissatisfaction with the typecasting, he still had a lot to be grateful for. In 1995, Kilmer and Whalley welcomed their second child, a son named Jack. But the dreaminess of their fairytale marriage was going to come to an end. In 1996, the two made the news when they announced that they were getting divorced. Their eight-year marriage was over.
“You just don’t understand humility until you have children and get divorced,” Kilmer said. “I was very hurt and very angry, and so was she. But when kids are involved, you either become friends with respect or you become mortal enemies.” After their split, tabloids around the world were whispering about a romance between him and the super model Cindy Crawford.
Romance: His Weakness
“She’s very nice,” Kilmer said of Crawford years later. “A smart girl with a great sense of humor.” Whether or not they were actually in a relationship, we can only speculate. But regardless, in the years following his divorce, Kilmer was once again regarded as a ladies’ man by the media. He himself admitted in an interview years later that it was hard to pursue a romantic relationship with the constant public scrutiny.
“Like when I got divorced, and I had some famous girlfriend, it’s inconvenient to be followed around,” Kilmer admitted. But he also admitted to having a weakness: romance. “I wish I’d been as dedicated to my career as I was to women.”
A Setback or Progress?
Instead of acting in the Batman sequels, he played alongside Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat. But the truth is, whether it was his reluctance to be in the Batman sequels or his reputation as difficult to work with, after that point, his Hollywood roles seemed to dry up. He was still acting, but his roles were fewer and further between.
Nothing he was making reached the same level of success as his earlier movies. Some might have seen it as a failure, others a setback. For Kilmer, however, it led to what he had wanted all along: freedom. He just wanted to break out of the stereotypical heartthrob typecast. The result may have meant fewer high-profile movie roles were being offered to him, but that’s exactly what he had hoped would happen.
With Freedom Comes Theatre
He was now free to pursue his own projects in the way that he wanted. And that’s just what he did. In 2014, Kilmer starred as a writer and humorist Mark Twain in the film Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn. As it turns out, the actor/poet had a lifelong adoration for Twain and was fascinated by him. It will come as no surprise then that following the movie, Kilmer launched a one-man show called Citizen Twain.
He returned to the stage with this play – a humorous look into the mind of the legendary writer. Offstage, however, Kilmer’s personal life was about to encounter real darkness that he obviously never saw coming.
And Then the C-Word Showed Up
In 2015, Kilmer was being whispered about again. But this time, it wasn’t regarding his backstage behavior or his love life. This time, people were concerned about his health. There were reports that Kilmer had been taken to the hospital and that he was in need of emergency surgery on his throat. At first, it was rumored that the actor was suffering from throat cancer, but it still unconfirmed by Kilmer or any of his representatives.
As the stories continued to spread, Kilmer kept on working. He was busy with a variety of movie productions and projects. In 2017, he was in Tomas Alfredson’s, The Snowman as investigating officer Gert Rafto. Everyone was shocked by the significant changes in his appearance. Most of the attention was drawn to his rather unusual speaking voice.
What’s With the Voice?
In the end, the rumors were confirmed: Kilmer’s voice wasn’t being used at all in the play. In fact, his lines were dubbed over by a different actor altogether. A lot of time passed while people speculated over the reason for his unusual appearance and inexplicable voice. And so, in 2017, Kilmer finally confirmed that he had indeed been battling throat cancer for several years.
Luckily, he was able to make a full recovery and pull through. But it left him with considerable physical changes. His tracheotomy meant that he would no longer be able to speak naturally. Tragic, yes. The end? No way. The Hollywood legend was able to take inspiration from his harrowing experience.
A New Appreciation for Life
Despite everything he has been through over the past few years, Kilmer has remained positive and thankful. He candidly opened up to The Hollywood Reporter, saying that his health struggles have given him a new appreciation for life. With this new epiphany, he realized that he doesn’t need to take his career too seriously.
“I was too serious,” he admitted. “I’d get upset when things like Oscars and recognition failed to come my way.” Kilmer started giving interviews that would show the world the true sound of his drastically changed voice. In interviews, his voice wasn’t being dubbed over by some other guy; this was the real deal. He may have lost his voice, but from the interviews, it is evident that he hasn’t lost any of his charisma and wit.
Thanks to Juilliard
When asked what he missed most about his voice, Kilmer’s immediate response was: “That I had one! That I didn’t laugh like a pirate.” The truth is that it’s a miracle that he was able to retain any of his voice at all. The secret lies in a skill he picked up many years ago at Juilliard. All these years later, Kilmer has nothing but gratitude for those voice lessons he once hated.
Without them, he would have lost his voice completely. Despite his hardships, Kilmer continues to be one of the hottest commodities in Hollywood. One of his most famous roles of all time is about to be brought back.
Returning to Top Gun
In 2018, it was confirmed that Kilmer would be returning to his iconic role as Iceman alongside Tom Cruise for Top Gun’s long-awaited sequel. Fans were beyond excited, but they couldn’t help but wonder how it would turn out. Although many fans and critics doubted if Kilmer could still give a stellar performance considering how much he’s changed, one fan stayed faithful the whole way.
His daughter Mercedes is his number one supporter. Mercedes Kilmer spoke out about how her father is still acting despite his disability. That alone has been an inspiration to her and to other actors with disabilities, too.
A Christian Scientist at Heart
“I think that because he is so well known, it will open more doors for other actors that are less well known that have different abilities to be able to be hired,” Mercedes said. Many people have wondered how Kilmer is able to press on through it all. Well, it might have something to do with his faith.
Kilmer has long been a devout Christian Scientist. “It was an unspeakable sense of universal support while I was briefly in the hospital,” Kilmer said of his faith. “Even two of my doctors mentioned praying with me for me.” It is clear to see that Kilmer has an enormous amount of fascinating stories to tell.
He’s Our Huckleberry
That’s why he decided to release a memoir. I’m Your Huckleberry turned out to be an instant bestseller. It only makes sense considering everyone wanted to find out the truth about his life over the years. In the book, he pays tribute to his ex-lover and long-time friend Cher, who helped him get through it all. With a five-decade career, Kilmer is a man with a story.
And he has also discovered a new fascination with food (since his surgery, eating conventionally is a problem). He said he watches all the food shows, including Top Chef, Chef’s Table, and Ugly Delicious. He’s been off the tracheostomy tube a few times, he said, but each time he has had a setback in the form of a cough, cold, or fever.
A Man of Faith
Aside from watching food shows and dreaming of eating a good old burger, Kilmer has been busy telling his story. He notes that he is a religious person – a person who is just trying to do some good in the world. He attributes a lot of his recovery to his faith. Some may say it’s hard to believe that a person could heal themselves with prayer.
According to Kilmer, “It’s not that difficult.” Kilmer knew that the cure for him was to work with his practitioner, his spiritual adviser, to pray his fear away. This way, he explained, his body would no longer “manifest outwardly what can be diagnosed as a malady.” In other words, it’s not really cancer – it’s just his fear expressing itself.