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A Tragic Truth About Val Kilmer


A Tragic Truth About Val Kilmer

Val Kilmer’s first acting job was a TV ad for hamburgers. He walked off the set because he could not get into his character’s “motivation,” according to The Telegraph. He was 12 years old. 15 years later Top Gun made him a global superstar — yet he hated the film and clashed with Tom Cruise. The star of The Saint, a devout Christian scientist, has made anything but a pious impression. Batman Forever director Joel Schumacher told Premiere Magazine that Kilmer was “the most psychologically disturbed human being I have ever worked with.” Rumors flew that he once nearly torched a crew member with a cigarette. His outbursts became so notorious insiders  dubbed him “psycho Kilmer.”

Nevertheless, the actor’s IMDB page is still soaring. Frenemy Tom Cruise even agreed to reunite with the “Iceman” for a Top Gun sequel. Maybe that’s because the “psycho” in question is also one of the biggest talents of his generation. Or maybe, it’s fear we could lose this difficult man.

The former matinee idol who played a dying Doc Holiday came so close himself and never wanted anyone to know. This brush with death has taken a toll. A star who once had Cher on his arm and every studio at his call, now lives a lonely life. His leading man looks are today degraded by pain — his once-booming actor’s voice crushed into a pinched, mournful growl. This is the tragic story of Val Kilmer.

A young Val Kilmer’s family crumbles

Val Kilmer posing for a 1988 portrait session

“There’s nothing good about divorce,” Val Kilmer told The Telegraph of his own failed marriage. But the iconic film star also comes from a broken home himself. Kilmer grew up affluent in Los Angeles, the son of an aerospace equipment distributor and real estate developer. But when he was nine, his parents’ marriage crumbled and he went to live with his father Eugene, his older brother Mark, and his younger brother Wesley.

Kilmer says the breakup of his family and home took a toll on him emotionally and strained his relationship with his father. “I was quiet,” he says. “More contemplative than outgoing … Things didn’t go well between me and my father for a very long time.”

It’s not clear that Kilmer ever patched up his relationship with the family patriarch. When Eugene died in 1995, Kilmer had a falling out with his older brother Mark as they battled over their father’s estate. “Val has no example in his life of a good relationship he can look to,” Mark told People in 1996.

That attitude was perhaps sealed for Kilmer, in another tragedy, eight years later.

The sudden death of Val Kilmer’s brother
Mark Kilmer, Val Kilmer, and Wesley Kilmer in a throwback photo posted to Val's Instagram

Val Kilmer’s acting journey began with the most auspicious happening of his life. At 16, Kilmer was accepted into the legendary Juilliard School of acting in New York. The academy’s alumni are legendary, including Robin Williams, Kelsey Grammer, Miles Davis, Christopher Reeve, and many others. But just before his enrollment began, Kilmer’s life changed forever.

Kilmer’s baby brother Wesley was an aspiring director. He was one year Val’s junior and a diagnosed epileptic. Kilmer worshipped Wesley. He told The Telegraph in 2004 that his baby brother was a “genius,” and explained how he “was just an amazing artist. I was sort of in awe of him.” In Val’s eyes, his artistically gifted brother was destined to be “another Steven Spielberg or George Lucas,” as he told The New York Times.

On the eve of Val’s departure, Wesley suffered an epileptic fit — a kind of electrical storm of the brain that seizes the body and can render the sufferer unconscious. Wesley fell into the family’s swimming pool and drowned. ”I didn’t really get back to earth until about two or three years after my brother died,” Kilmer told The Times, dropping an oddly unironic musical reference. “It’s like that Nickelback song, ‘I’m sick of sight without the sense of feeling.”’ In 2019, a still reckoning Kilmer posted the above photo, captioned, “Me and my perfect brothers Mark And Wesley.”

Val Kilmer discovers his own tortured genius

Val Kilmer in a still from At First Sight

In what would become a pattern for Val Kilmer, his success was marred by some internal misery. He hated Juilliard, according to The New York Times. He rubbed his mentors and colleagues the wrong way. He disdained the “authoritarian” vibe of the famous school. He hated formalism. The silly “vocal exercises.” The rules.

Nonetheless, he flourished. He landed lead parts onstage in Orestes and The Wood Demon. He even wrote his own play with classmates they called How It All Began. And it was. Famed theatre producer Joseph Papp caught the play while visiting the school and liked it. It ran for a month at The Public Theater in New York.

Kilmer was good enough for Broadway, landing John Byrne’s “Slab Boys.” But he was demoted twice, first by a young Kevin Bacon and then Sean Penn. Next was “As You Like It” in Minneapolis with Grammy and Tony award-winner Patti LuPone. In the wake of the worst personal loss of his life, sullen as he was, Kilmer found his calling. But the bitterness in success would not relent.

Fame was the last thing on Val Kilmer’s mind

Val Kilmer at a screening of The Apostle

In 1984, Val Kilmer booked his first film, the goofy spoof Top Secret!. Next was 1985’s Real Genius, another broad, dopey sci-fi romp. Yet somehow, Kilmer was still feeling picky. He wasn’t impressed when he got the script for Top Gun, according to his memoir, I’m Your Huckleberry. “I didn’t want the part. I didn’t care about the film. The story didn’t interest me,” he writes.

Fortunately, the film’s iconic director Tony Scott talked Kilmer into the project, promising him the role of the slick but cautious ace fighter pilot and foil to Tom Cruise’s Maverick would be expanded. Scott’s enthusiasm eventually won over the stubborn actor on the set, but Kilmer and Cruise still clashed. Each day when filming wrapped the two stars formed separate camps, mirroring their conflict in the film. “We were the party boys,” Kilmer writes in his memoir (via the Daily Beast) of his boozy nights during production. Meanwhile, according to Kilmer, Cruise holed up late rehearsing lines, stunts, planning his world action-star takeover.

Top Gun would go on to gross over $350 million and become a global cultural touchstone, none of which was in Kilmer’s plans. As he recounted to The New York Times in 2020, “Fame wasn’t my priority, and I had it.”

Val Kilmer’s obsessions tore him apart

Val Kilmer at the premiere of Red Planet

“I’m a character actor,” Val Kilmer told The Telegraph in 2004, “but I look like a leading man.” Those looks and that mindset made Kilmer the perfect choice to portray the tortured but beautiful Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s The Doors in 1991. The story is about the rocker’s rise to rock stardom and his quick decline into drug abuse and then death at only 27.

Kilmer is brilliant as The Doors’ troubled troubadour but he began cementing his diva reputation on set, feuding with Stone about the direction of the film. Or as Stone politely put it, “He speaks in a way that is propelled from deep inside, and he doesn’t always realize how the things he says will sound to other people,” the director told Esquire in 2005.

Kilmer’s obsessiveness in his craft sometimes pushed co-stars too far. Actress Caitlin O’Heaney claims Kilmer assaulted her during an audition for The Doors that got out of control. “When I got to the room Val Kilmer picked me up and shaked me, throwing me down to the floor,” she told Buzzfeed News in 2017. O’Heaney filed “a preliminary police report for battery” over the incident, and was eventually paid a $24,500 settlement. She also revealed a confidentiality agreement “signed by her, Stone, and Kilmer,” which barred “all parties” from “disclos[ing] it or the allegations to anyone else.” However, the film’s casting director Risa Bramon Garcia, who was present, refutes O’Heaney’s story calling it, “blown out of proportion.”

A cancer diagnosis left Val Kilmer at a philosophical crossroad

Val Kilmer at the American Music Awards

Val Kilmer’s life had been both charmed, and cursed, often by his own making. And that fits his view of reality, “God wants us to walk, but the devil sends a limo,” he mused to The New York Times. But then, in 2014, Kilmer was sent something else entirely. He was touring a stage show and began having a hard time swallowing. Shortly thereafter he was staying in Cher’s guest house when “Suddenly I awoke vomiting blood that covered the bed like a scene out of The Godfather,” he writes in I’m Your Huckleberry. In another similar incident recounted in the memoir, Kilmer describes how “blood dripped down my body, my vision blurred, my energy drained.”

The story gets fuzzy here because Kilmer rejects his diagnosis as a part of his devotion to Christian Science. Traditional doctors told him it was throat cancer. His spiritual advisor claimed he merely needed to pray the fear away.

His cancer, however, seemed immune to such mind-over-matter intuitions. Kilmer’s health was fast fading and he was caught in a battle between his belief in God as a healer, and the desperate pleas from his son Jack and his daughter Mercedes to seek more earthly remedies. They pleaded with their stubborn father to save his own life.

Val Kilmer fights his illness in secret

Val Kilmer at Simply Shakespeare's live read of The Merchant of Venice

Val Kilmer eventually bowed to the pressure of his children — neither of them Christian Scientists. “I just didn’t want to experience their fear, which was profound,” Kilmer told The New York Times, adding, “I would’ve had to go away, and I just didn’t want to be without them.”

That same year, 2014, Kilmer got surgery on his ailing instrument. Next was chemotherapy and radiation. He says doctors, “zapped my whole throat,” which he still describes as, “dry as a bone.” The surgery “left him with a tracheostomy tube,” short of breath, and subsisting on a feeding tube. It reduced his once-booming baritone to “rasp,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. His great gift was gone, “Speaking, once my joy and lifeblood has become an hourly struggle. The instrument over which I had complete mastery is now out of my control,” he laments in I’m Your Huckleberry.

In another ill twist of fate, Kilmer’s daughter Mercedes was hit by a car in a serious accident that left a scar running down the length of her leg. She joined her father in the hospital. Kilmer’s son Jack was devastated as he tended their bedsides, telling THR, “I was just, you know, miserable, distraught, sitting next to these two.”


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