Val Kilmer was for many years an esteemed leading man with a series of memorable Hollywood hits under his belt. Thanks to his performances in such classics as Top Gun and Willow, he’ll always be a legend – but his career faltered due to personal issues and a reputation for being difficult off-camera. Here are some things you might not have known about the actor.
20. He attended high school (and Sunday school) with Kevin Spacey
- Credit: Val Kilmer Facebook
Val Kilmer attended Chatsworth High School in San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles in the 1970s.
Also attending Chatsworth at the time was another ambitious youngster who would go on to make a mark in Hollywood: Kevin Spacey.
As Kilmer recalls, he and Spacey were classmates not just at high school, but also at Sunday school.
Just how friendly the two men were as kids seems questionable, though, as Kilmer didn’t have the kindest assessment of Spacey’s acting skills back then.
Kilmer remarked in a Reddit Q&A in 2017, “I knew Kevin Spacey since he was like 15 and he was sooooooooooo bad it used to hurt my eyes… But boy did he work hard and deserves all his awards.”
These remarks were made before Spacey was disgraced following numerous allegations of sexual misconduct; Kilmer has since declined to comment on these allegations.
19. He allegedly burnt a crew member with a cigarette on the set of The Island of Dr. Moreau
1996 box office bomb The Island of Dr. Moreau has gone down in film history as having one of the most troubled productions ever.
Filming on the H.G. Wells adaptation resulted in one disaster after another, including illness, storms and the sacking of original director Richard Stanley.
If reports are to be believed, Val Kilmer only added to the issues by being an extremely difficult presence on the film’s set, first insisting he be recast from his original role, then demanding script revisions.
Kilmer (who was in the process of divorcing Joanne Whalley at the time) would apparently sometimes refuse to leave his trailer, and it was even alleged that he burnt a crew member with a cigarette.
Replacement director John Frankenheimer was later quoted as saying that “even if I was directing a film called The Life of Val Kilmer, I wouldn’t have that p***k in it.”
Curiously, Kilmer himself would later say The Island of Doctor Moreau was a “beautiful experience,” suggesting “the film gets a bad rap because Poor [director John] Frankenheimer was desperate for a comeback, and he froze up with Marlon’s gutsy style of improv.”
18. Countless actors and directors have called him difficult to work with
Unfortunately for Kilmer, The Island of Doctor Moreau isn’t the only production to have produced unfavourable reports about the actor’s behaviour.
Batman Forever director Joel Schumacher described the actor as “childish and impossible,” recalling his on-set behaviour as “irrational and ballistic… rude and inappropriate.”
Their relationship was bad enough that Kilmer did not return to play the Caped Crusader a second time in Batman & Robin – although it’s not entirely clear if he quit or was fired.
Kevin Jarre, the original director of Tombstone who was fired a month into production, said “There’s a dark side to Val that I don’t feel comfortable talking about.”
For his part, Kilmer admitted in a 2020 interview that by the end of the 90s he had “alienated the head of every major studio.”
However, others including Kilmer’s The Doors director Oliver Stone and Tombstone producer James Jacks have dismissed any such claims of bad behaviour and praised the actor’s dedication.
17. He once “flew all the way to Australia” just to talk to Cate Blanchett
Even though Kilmer is known for being a little on the eccentric side, he raised more than a few eyebrows with some things he wrote on Twitter in 2017.
In a series of somewhat bizarre tweets, Kilmer expressed his adoration for the esteemed Academy Award-winner Cate Blanchett.
These included a tweet that read, “once I did a cameo just to hang with Cate Blanchett who picked up a shovel in our scene. I was so dazzled by HOW she picked it up I forgot my line.”
Another tweet revealed that Blanchett may have been slightly creeped out by his affections, with Kilmer writing “once I flew all the way to Australia just to talk to Cate Blanchett. Her husband met me first, or instead I guess, to be accurate.”
Once I flew all the way to Australia just to talk to Cate Blanchett. Her husband met me first. Or, instead, I guess, to be accurate. pic.twitter.com/xSoYxRi0jh
— Val Kilmer (@valkilmer) March 24, 2017
Yet another tweet from Kilmer declared, “recently I’ve had 2 dreams with #CateBlanchett in them. Her husband wasn’t in either of them.”
Kilmer was widely criticised for what many considered a rather creepy show of affection, and he subsequently deleted some of his social media posts on the subject.
However, the actor later insisted that everything he wrote was “of the highest respect and admiration for #cateblanchett… She’s a friend of mine and I’ve met her husband thru the years and we’ve all gotten along just fine.”
16. He had a two-year battle with throat cancer (that he initially denied)
— Good Morning America (@GMA) April 21, 2020
Kilmer was diagnosed with throat cancer in January 2015, but was determined to keep the matter private.
The actor initially denied that any such diagnosis had been made after he was first hospitalised.
Kilmer declared on social media, ‘I have not had a tumor, or a tumor operation, or any operation. I had a complication where the best way to receive care was to stay under the watchful eye of the UCLA ICU.’
He would continue to dodge and deny any questions on the matter for the following two years, despite many reports to the contrary.
Things got complicated on that front when Michael Douglas (himself a cancer survivor) spoke publicly about Kilmer’s cancer battle, telling the press, “things don’t look too good for him.” Reportedly Douglas later apologised to Kilmer for making the matter public.
Finally, in 2017, Kilmer announced that he had ‘a healing of cancer,’ having undergone tracheotomy which has left suffering shortness of breath and a raspy voice, which the actor recently joked makes him sound like a pirate.
15. He turned down the role of Johnny in Dirty Dancing due to fears of being typecast as a heartthrob
Val Kilmer’s key supporting role of Iceman in 1986 blockbuster Top Gun really sent him into the stratosphere.
It was at this point that the actor was offered the male lead in a new coming of age romantic drama called Dirty Dancing.
However, Kilmer chose to turn down the role of bad boy dancer Johnny for fear of type-casting in heartthrob roles.
Billy Zane then came close to landing the role, before the late Patrick Swayze finally signed on opposite Jennifer Grey.
As every 80s kid knows, the rest is history: Dirty Dancing became one of the most beloved romantic movies of the decade.
After turning down Dirty Dancing, 1987 would ultimately see Kilmer appear in TV movie The Man Who Broke 1000 Chains, for which he received a CableACE Award nomination for Best Actor in a TV Movie or Miniseries.
14. He married his Willow co-star Joanne Whalley
In 1988, Val Kilmer took the role of heroic swordsman Madmartigan in director Ron Howard’s fantasy adventure Willow.
This was a role that proved to have a major impact on the actor personally, as he was cast alongside English actress Joanne Whalley.
In a case of life imitating art, Kilmer and Whalley wound up falling in love, and were married that same year.
As actors, they reunited on screen on their next movie, 1989 crime thriller Kill Me Again, with Whalley now going by the professional name of Joanne Whalley-Kilmer.
The couple had two children together: Mercedes Kilmer, born in 1991, and Jack Kilmer, born in 1995.
Unfortunately, the marriage was reportedly a troubled one. Shortly after giving birth to Jack, Whalley filed for divorce from Kilmer, citing irreconcilable differences.
13. He self-published a book of poetry inspired by Michelle Pfeiffer
Years before Kilmer splurged his feelings about Cate Blanchett all over Twitter, he expressed his admiration for Michelle Pfeiffer in a more traditional, but still grandiose manner.
Kilmer and Pfeiffer worked together in 1985’s One Too Many, an ABC Afterschool Special drama designed to show teens the dangers of drinking.
It was an early job for both actors, and it seems their time together made something of a mark on Kilmer.
Ever the romantic, Kilmer composed a poem inspired by his co-star entitled The Pfeiffer Howls at the Moon.
This wound up being one among a whole book of poems entitled My Eden After Burns, which Kilmer self-published that same year.
Long out of print, My Eden After Burns is reportedly sought after by collectors, with copies now fetching a hefty price tag.
12. He ate a live locust on the set of Tombstone
Tombstone screenwriter and original director Kevin Jarre was fired and replaced by George P. Cosmatos just a few weeks into shooting the Western (although it’s widely reported the film was actually ‘ghost-directed’ by leading man Kurt Russell).
Prior to Jarre’s dismissal, he was left deeply unnerved by a strange off-camera incident with Kilmer.
Jarre recalled in 1996 that he was having a conversation with Kilmer when “a stand-in brought over a very colorful sort of locust and said, ‘Look what I found!’”
Jarre continues, “I looked up and said, ‘Hey, that’s pretty good,’ and Val, without saying a word, grabbed the locust from the guy and ate it. And it was big.
“He said to me, ‘As you know, I have a reputation for being difficult. But only with stupid people.’”
Jarre never directed again after Tombstone; he would go on to write 1997’s The Devil’s Own and 1999’s The Mummy before passing away in 2011.
11. He could have played the lead roles in Dune and Blue Velvet
To date, Val Kilmer has never appeared in a film directed by acclaimed auteur David Lynch, but he actually could have been the star of two.
Early on, Kilmer was attached to the part of Paul Atreides in Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel Dune.
Kilmer ultimately parted ways with the project, and it’s doubtful he has any regrets there as Dune was widely regarded a disaster. (A remake is on the way from Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve.)
However, it was in the early days of Dune that Kilmer was offered another lead role by Lynch in what would be his next film, 1986’s Blue Velvet.
Kilmer turned the film down, allegedly because the script was “straight-out, hard-core pornography before page 30. I never finished it. I said, ‘Good luck, but I can’t do this.’ It isn’t what he ended up making. THAT movie, I WOULD have done.”
In the case of both Dune and Blue Velvet, the roles Kilmer turned down went to Kyle MacLachlan, who went on to play the lead in Lynch’s smash hit TV series Twin Peaks.
10. He believes Christian Science helped cure his cancer
- Credit: Val Kilmer Facebook
Val Kilmer was raised as a Christian Scientist, initially attending LA’s Berkeley Hall School (a faith-based school at the time) until ninth grade.
Christian Science has often been criticised for its teachings that prayer is more effective for healing than modern medicine.
- Credit: Val Kilmer Facebook
Kilmer remains a follower of the faith to this day, and has said that he believes it helped him beat cancer.
The actor stated in a Q&A session with fans on Reddit in 2017, “People that know I am a Christian Scientist make the assumption that I have somehow endangered myself.”
- Credit: Val Kilmer Facebook
“But,” Kilmer argued, “Many, many people have been healed by prayer throughout recorded history. And many, many people have died by whatever was modern medicine.”
Defending his faith, Kilmer suggested that “Maybe [critics of Christian Science] mix it up in their minds with extremists. People screaming with signs in front of Planned Parenthood or something. That’s not my sense of Christianity.”
9. Even surviving members of The Doors couldn’t tell the difference between Kilmer’s voice and Jim Morrison’s
1991 saw Kilmer land his most high profile gig yet: playing late rock legend Jim Morrison in biopic The Doors.
The actor, aged 31 at the time, was cast by director Oliver Stone based primarily on his physical resemblance to Morrison.
However, few could have anticipated how well Kilmer could impersonate the singing voice of the iconic Doors frontman.
Kilmer’s vocals were so convincing that even the surviving members of The Doors themselves were unable to distinguish between their singing voices.
The Doors’ former producer Paul Rothschild has been quoted as saying “I’d bring tracks into the recording studio, I randomly switched Val and Jim.”
According to Rothschild, Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger, and drummer John Densmore “guessed wrong 80 percent of the time” trying to tell Kilmer from Morrison.
8. He was so in character on Tombstone that co-star Michael Biehn says he “never met Val Kilmer”
For both Kilmer and his fans, one of the roles the actor is most synonymous with is Doc Holliday in Tombstone.
This 1993 western cast Kilmer alongside Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp in an epic retelling of the famed tales from America’s Old West.
Kilmer feels such a close identification with the role that he took the title of his 2020 memoir, I’m Your Huckleberry, from the movie.
It seems Kilmer was very much in character as Doc Holliday in production on Tombstone as well, at least according to co-star Michael Biehn.
Biehn reflected in 2020, “People ask me what it’s like to work with Val Kilmer. I don’t know. Never met him. Never shook his hand. I know Doc Holliday, but I don’t know [Kilmer].”
Tombstone had a troubled production and wasn’t a huge hit on release, but its reputation has grown with time.
7. A clip of Kilmer using firearms in Heat has been used in US Marine training
1995 was one of the biggest and busiest years for Kilmer professionally, as he shot Batman Forever back-to-back with Heat, in which he took third billing behind film legends Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.
Kilmer actually came close to missing out on the role of thief Chris Shiherlis in Michael Mann’s crime thriller, due to his commitment to playing Batman.
Keanu Reeves was at one point poised to replace Kilmer in the role, until a schedule was worked out allowing Kilmer to work on both films concurrently.
Despite this busy workload, Kilmer’s dedication to Heat was never in doubt, and the actor threw himself into the physical training the part required, especially when it came to the use of firearms.
Kilmer’s performance in Heat has been widely acclaimed by gun experts and members of the armed forces because of how expertly Kilmer handles his weapons.
One moment that has been met with particular praise comes midway through the central gun battle sequence, which sees Kilmer perfectly change the magazine in his assault rifle.
The real-world accuracy of this moment is so great that it has reportedly been shown to recruits in training for the US Marine Corps.
6. He was the voice of KITT in a 2008 reboot of Knight Rider
Hands up everyone who remembers 80s TV classic Knight Rider. Okay, now hands up everyone who remembers the reboot series of 2008.
We’re guessing far less hands went up the second time, as the 21st century Knight Rider revival proved to be short-lived.
This despite the fact that the modernised take on the beloved David Hasselhoff series had none other than Val Kilmer on its cast list.
Not that Kilmer took over as the lead Michael Knight: that role went to actor Justin Bruening, who played the son of the original hero formerly played by the Hoff.
Kilmer, meanwhile, took over from William Daniels as the voice of KITT, the intelligent high-tech supercar with all the gadgets under the sun.
Unfortunately, new Knight Rider just didn’t grab audiences the way it used to, and network NBC axed the series after only 18 episodes.
5. He made his name as a stage actor before becoming a movie star
We of course know Val Kilmer for his film work, but like so many actors his roots are really in the theatre.
Kilmer attended the Juilliard Performing Arts School, and was at the time the youngest person ever accepted into the illustrious school’s drama division.
- Credit: Val Kilmer Facebook
While attending Juilliard in 1981, Kilmer’s appeared in the original stage play How It All Began, which he also co-wrote.
Kilmer followed this with the 1983 Off Broadway production The Slab Boys, alongside two other notable actors: Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon.
Kilmer was so serious about the stage that he even turned down a role in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 film The Outsiders due to having a prior theatrical commitment.
Kilmer has returned to theatre since, playing Moses in a 2004 production of The Ten Commandments, and Mark Twain in 2013 one man show Citizen Twain.
4. He made his film debut in 1984 comedy Top Secret!
Considering his dramatic beginnings on the stage, it might be surprising that Kilmer made his film debut in a truly outlandish comedy.
For his very first movie, a 25-year-old Kilmer took the lead role of Nick Rivers in 1984 World War II spy movie spoof Top Secret!
Kilmer was in good company on his first film, sharing the screen with such esteemed veterans as Peter Cushing and Omar Sharif.
Kilmer’s next film would be another comedy, with the actor playing a college science whizz in 1985’s Real Genius.
Reportedly Kilmer took his next film role – Iceman in 1987’s Top Gun – because of a contractual obligation, rather than any desire to do the film. However, it turned out to be a career-changing move.
3. His younger brother died aged just 15
As you might expect given what a troubled character Kilmer is said to be, he has endured some real tragedies.
In 1977, Kilmer’s younger brother Wesley died in a tragic accident aged just 15.
- Credit: Val Kilmer Facebook
Aspiring filmmaker Wesley had been diagnosed with epilepsy, and drowned in a swimming pool.
Kilmer has said he believes his brother had been talented enough to be another Steven Spielberg or George Lucas.
The actor said in 2002 that he “didn’t really get back to earth until about two or three years after my brother died.”
Kilmer also says that he draw on this grief for his role in 2002 film The Salton Sea.
Val has another brother, Mark Kilmer, who is a clinical psychologist based in Boulder, Colorado.
2. He believes his marriage to Joanne Whalley was destiny (even though they divorced in 1996)
Val Kilmer believes that higher powers are at work in the universe, and says he has felt their influence in his life.
For instance, he believes that fate had a hand to play in his marriage to Joanne Whalley.
Kilmer told the New York Times that, while staying in London in 1985, he dreamed about meeting the woman he was destined to be with.
The following day he went to see a play which Joanne Whalley happened to be in, and he was immediately so taken with her that he followed her to the pub afterwards, but didn’t dare approach her.
Then two years later Kilmer and Whalley formally met when, by total coincidence, she was cast alongside him in Willow, and they wed soon thereafter.
Kilmer also recalls that he was on vacation in Africa exploring bat caves when his agent called to offer him the part of Batman.
1. Many of his former colleagues speak extremely highly of him
- Credit: Val Kilmer Facebook
It might sometimes seem like Val Kilmer is one of the most disliked men in Hollywood, given the number of stories about his bad behaviour.
However, plenty of people who have worked alongside the actor have nothing but kind words to say about him.
One of these is Warwick Davis, who shared the screen with Kilmer in 1988’s Willow, and praised the actor’s dedication, work ethic and sense of humour.
Many of Kilmer’s directors, among them Michael Mann (Heat) and Oliver Stone (The Doors), have also praised the actor’s professionalism.