The Truth About Val Kilmer’s Journey From Next Big Thing To Hollywood Afterthought

Breaking out big with his role as “Iceman” in Top Gun, Val Kilmer had a meteoric rise in Hollywood that peaked with him donning the cape and cowl in Batman Forever. Just as quickly as he became the industry’s “next big action star” he fell into obscurity. The turn of the century for Kilmer was filled with ups and downs, and now we know exactly what happened to the former superstar. This is the truth about Val Kilmer’s life behind the scenes of Hollywood!

He Started Acting In High School

Val Kilmer promo shoot
TriStar/Getty Images
TriStar/Getty Images

Even though he wasn’t getting paid for it, Val Kilmer started his love affair with acting in high school. During that time, he was close friends with Kevin Spacey, another young actor who would turn into a major star.

Of course, neither could possibly know what their futures held. Spacey would go on to win on an Oscar before being forced to disappear from the spotlight. Kilmer would eventually choose to lead a more private life, hiding his secrets like the caped crusader he would become.

A Family Tragedy Taught Him That “Life Is Precious”

Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

In 1977, Val Kilmer’s brother drowned in a tragic accident. The young actor was devastated but used the moment as motivation. Speaking with The Guardian, Kilmer revealed, “Life is precious, and when someone dies it’s an opportunity to realize how precious it is.”

In his memoir, he expanded on the tragedy, “You have to not see it as a loss… No one wants to see or hear a handsome, successful, talented writer-actor-director who gets the most impossible-to-get girls in the world complain about a [word removed] thing.”

He Was The Youngest Student Ever Accepted To Juilliard

1988 Young Artists Unite picture of val kilmer
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

After Val Kilmer graduated from high school. he was awarded a spot at Juilliard, one of the most prestigious performing arts schools in the world. At the time, he was the youngest performer ever accepted there.

At that young age, Kilmer struggled with what he believed was a curriculum based on scaring the students. Despite his struggles, he graduated in four years, even co-writing How It All Began, a play that found its way from the school to Broadway.

He Gained Notoriety For His Stage Performances

val kilmer big hair
Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images
Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images

Living in New York after graduating from Juilliard, Val Kilmer wasn’t about to jump straight into the movies. Instead, he built up a well-received resume on-stage in front of live audiences.

As his star began to rise, it wasn’t just agents that took notice. In the early ’80s, one major musician and actress fell for Kilmer, and even though their relationship didn’t last, their friendship continues to endure today.

He Dated Cher For Several Years

Cher with val kilmer
Barry King/WireImage
Barry King/WireImage

Val Kilmer was just starting to gain attention when Cher took notice. The two began a relationship that lasted for several years and turned Kilmer into an instant celebrity. Before they began dating, Kilmer was hesitant to even meet Cher.

In his memoir, he explained, “I saw Cher as a less-than-fascinating character out of the gossip rags.” Once he gave in, the couple found happiness for two years, from 1982 until 1984.

Top Gun Was His Breakout Role

On the set of Top Gun
Paramount Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images
Paramount Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1984, Val Kilmer made his big-screen debut in the parody movie Top Secret! The next year he played a supporting role in Real Genius. While those two films gave him valuable experience, it was his next film that shot him to stardom.

Top Gun came out in 1986 and starred Tom Cruise as “Maverick.” Kilmer played “Iceman,” a rival pilot. The movie was a massive hit, and moved the young star straight onto the A-list!

He Didn’t Want To Make Top Gun

top-gun val kilmer
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

When Kilmer was initially offered his role in Top Gun, he surprisingly turned it down. He didn’t like the script and was ready to move on when director Tony Scott convinced him otherwise.

Scott promised Kilmer that “Iceman” would be written differently in the shooting script. It was this, along with the director’s enthusiasm for the movie, that changed Kilmer’s mind. It’s a good thing he did, too. Top Gun finished its box office run with $180 million.

A Secret Romance With Michelle Pfeiffer?

michelle pfeiffer on the beach
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Before starring in Top Gun, Kilmer filmed an afterschool special for ABC titled One Too Many. He acted alongside Michelle Pfeiffer in the show, and their chemistry was so strong, people began to wonder if they were dating behind the scenes.

While no romance was ever confirmed, two years after filming the special, Kilmer wrote the poem “The Pfeiffer Howls at the Moon.” A poet at heart, this wouldn’t be the last poem he ever wrote about a woman.

He Fell In Love Filming Willow

willow kilmer and whalley
MGM
MGM

With movie roles being offered left and right after Top Gun, Val Kilmer chose Willow as his next movie. He starred in the dark fantasy alongside Joanne Whalley. As with previous co-stars, the chemistry between the two was undeniable.

The difference this time was that Kilmer and Whalley ended up dating and getting married. Oddly enough, Kilmer claims that shortly before meeting Whalley he had a dream that he met the love of his life. When he woke up he wrote the poem “We’ve Just Met but Marry Me Please.”

He Showed His Range In The Doors

the-doors val kilmer as jim morrison
Carolco Pictures
Carolco Pictures

During the ’80s, Val Kilmer starred in a lot of genre fare including comedies, action-adventures, and fantasy films. In 1991, director Oliver Stone gave him one of his first chances to show his dramatic range in The Doors.

Kilmer played Jim Morrison in the film, the lead singer of the legendary band. Kilmer earned rave reviews for his performance. Reviewer Dennis King wrote, “Morrison is played with uncanny authenticity by Val Kilmer. The performance is utterly convincing…”

He Became A Hollywood Heartthrob

kilmer-russel in tombstone
Buena Vista Pictures
Buena Vista Pictures

Kilmer continued to ascend the Hollywood ladder. He starred in two movies in 1993 that would go on to become classics: Tombstone and True Romance. With so much success happening so quickly, Kilmer’s next evolution was unavoidable.

He became a heartthrob. The only problem was this was the exact opposite direction Kilmer wanted his career to go. He wanted to continue taking on more challenging and artistic roles like Jim Morrison.

Kilmer Became Difficult To Work With

val kilmer batman forever premiere
Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images
Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images

By the mid-’90s, Kilmer had earned a reputation as one of the harder stars in Hollywood to work with. He didn’t want to be typecast but continually ended up playing the hero in big-budget movies.

This wasn’t a sudden personality change, though. While filming Top Gun, Kilmer and Tom Cruise reportedly clashed on set because of Cruise’s preference to sign up for big-budget, audience-friendly leading roles. Kilmer felt he should have been challenging himself more.

Batman Forever Was A Massive Hit

val kilmer in batman forever
Warner Brothers
Warner Brothers

After Batman Returns was considered too dark, director Joel Schumacher was brought in to lighten up the franchise. He chose Kilmer to replace Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne. The big-budget film was a massive hit and became the highest-grossing movie of the year.

Despite the success, Kilmer was still unsatisfied creatively. He wasn’t ready to call it quits just yet, but shortly after Batman Forever came out, he received a wake-up call that changed the course of his career forever.

Warren Beatty’s Kids Turned Kilmer Against Batman

02c34f3ad400fe2d6fab1ac52a8e44a3392bdf89
Warner Brothers
Warner Brothers

Riding high on the success of Batman Forever, Val Kilmer had the fortunate opportunity one day to meet director Warren Beatty’s kids. Hoping to entertain them, he wore his Batman costume to introduce himself.

Much to Kilmer’s dismay, the kids only wanted to try on the bat suit, not talk to the actor in any way. This moment made Kilmer turn away from playing roles like Batman again, a move that nearly ended his career.

Whalley And Kilmer Divorced In 1996

val kilmer and joanne whalley
Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

For eight years, Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley appeared to be the perfect Hollywood couple. Behind the scenes of the marriage, though, they were struggling. After eight years together, they divorced in 1996.

Speaking to Elle, Kilmer said, “You just don’t understand humility until you have children and get divorced. 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 Whalley, Kilmer Dated Cindy Crawford

cindy crawford on the runway
PAT/ARNAL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
PAT/ARNAL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Single for the first time in nearly a decade, the tabloids had a field day trying to figure out who Val Kilmer would be linked to next. It didn’t take long for his next romance to blossom

After ending his marriage, Kilmer began dating Cindy Crawford. The affair was brief, ending the same year it began. About Crawford, Kilmer remarked, “She’s very nice… A smart girl with a great sense of humor.”

More Famous Girlfriends Followed

val kilmer and angelina jolie
SGranitz/WireImage
SGranitz/WireImage

Val Kilmer continued to date and even earned a reputation around the town as a ladies man. In 2001 he dated Daryl Hannah and later had a brief romance with Angelina Jolie.

Speaking openly about his past, Kilmer revealed, “Like when I got divorced and I had some famous girlfriend, it’s inconvenient to be followed around… I wish I’d been as dedicated to my career as I was to women.”

He Refused To Suit Up As Batman Again

the-saint val kilmer
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

When Val Kilmer signed on to play Batman, he had not only committed to Batman Forever. He also committed to two sequels. Fed up with living the blockbuster lifestyle, Kilmer refused to follow through on his commitment, resentful that people cared more about Batman’s toys and enemy villains than the title character.

That’s not the entire story, though. Kilmer was also set to start filming The Saint when Batman and Robin was announced. His commitment to the espionage thriller meant Warner Brothers was forced to re-cast the iconic superhero.

The Saint Offered Him One Of His Last Leading Roles

the-saint val kilmer and elisabeth shue
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Unbeknownst to Kilmer, The Saint would be one of his last major movies as the lead actor. In the movie, Kilmer plays a thief and master of disguise. The movie was a minor commercial success but a critical failure.

Kilmer was nominated for a Golden Raspberry for Worst Actor for his performance. He lost the award to Kevin Costner, but the overall damage to his career would prove to be hard to overcome.

Smaller Roles Followed

alexander val kilmer
Warner Brothers
Warner Brothers

As the years passed, Val Kilmer continued to act but found himself being offered smaller supporting roles. During this time, Alexander became one of the more high-profile jobs he was able to get.

In Alexander, Kilmer played Phillip II, whose assassination early on helps start the plot of the movie. The big-budget movie was bloated with stars and become a massive failure, both critically and commercially. As disappointing as this may have been, Val Kilmer’s career story doesn’t end here.

An Obsession With Mark Twain

Samuel Clemens Deep in Thought
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Throughout his life, Val Kilmer has always been fascinated with Mark Twain. His obsession peaked in 2011 when he starred as the author in the film Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn. The film would sit on the shelf for three years before finally being released, but audiences wouldn’t have to wait that long to see Kilmer play the author.

In 2012, Kilmer took Twain to the stage in Citizen Twain, a one-man stage play he wrote and directed.

Reports Of Declining Health

val kilmer in 2015
Jerod Harris/Getty Images
Jerod Harris/Getty Images

Val Kilmer became a hot name in the tabloids again in 2015, but this time it wasn’t because of his love life. It was because of concerns about his health.

At the time, it was leaked that Kilmer had been hospitalized and needed emergency throat surgery. During this very private time, these rumors were left unconfirmed. Kilmer would continue acting, but would he ever let the public know what he was dealing with behind the scenes?

Returning To The Big Screen

val kilmer in the snowman
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

Kilmer continued to work and made his big return to the big screen in 2017 as a supporting character in Tomas Alfredson’s The Snowman. Not only were audiences surprised at his physical transformation, but they were also taken aback by his voice.

As it turned out, the studio behind the movie replaced Kilmer’s voice, explaining why he sounded so drastically different. Still, it was clear that something had happened to Kilmer, and he was about to reveal what it was.

Kilmer Revealed His Battle With Cancer

Val Kilmer at the UN in New York
EuropaNewswire/Gado/Getty Images
EuropaNewswire/Gado/Getty Images

With questions swirling about his appearance, and his voice, Val Kilmer finally revealed that he had been battling throat cancer. The condition forced his hospitalization in 2015, and he had fully recovered since.

Kilmer didn’t allow his struggles with health to change his outlook on life. In fact, the actor managed to turn his illness into a reminder to enjoy all that he had achieved. He admitted to the Hollywood Reporter, “I was too serious. I’d get upset when things like Oscars and recognition failed to come my way.”

Vocal Training May Have Saved His Voice

Val Kilmer Attends
Gary Miller/Getty Images
Gary Miller/Getty Images

With the truth about his health revealed, it suddenly became clear why Kilmer’s voice was dubbed over in The Snowman – he barely had one. The throat surgery the actor underwent in 2015 significantly weakened his vocal cords, and he almost lost his voice altogether.

Thankfully, all his years of vocal training at Juilliard had left him with strong vocal cords. Even though his voice was drastically different, Kilmer was grateful just to still have one.

Returning To Top Gun

top gun 2 image
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Development on a sequel to Top Gun first began in 2010. In 2017, the film was officially greenlit with Tom Cruise set to return as “Maverick” and Joseph Kosinski picked to direct.

Kilmer took to social media to launch a campaign for the return of “Iceman” shortly after. In 2018, The Wrap announced that the campaign worked and Kilmer would be returning in a small appearance. The film was supposed to be released in 2020 but was later delayed to 2021.

His Memoir Became A Bestseller

Val Kilmer
EuropaNewswire/Gado/Getty Images
EuropaNewswire/Gado/Getty Images

There is no denying that Val Kilmer went through a lot during his life and career. In May 2020, he finally let fans fully inside his life, releasing his memoir I’m Your Huckleberry. The book would go on to be a bestseller.

In the book, Kilmer takes special care to thank his first Hollywood love, Cher, for how much she meant to him over the years, and how much her friendship helped keep him afloat.

He’s Not Calling It A Career Yet

23rd Annual Simply Shakespeare Benefit Reading Of
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

With his casting in Top Gun: Maverick confirmed, one thing is clear – after everything he has been through, Val Kilmer is not ready to call it a career. Along with his return to flight, Kilmer has at least four other films in production or development.

The future is bright for Val Kilmer, which is great news for all his fans. Are you as excited as we are to see what his future holds?