Val Kilmer has crafted one of the most diverse careers of any actor of his generation since breaking onto the scene in the early ’80s. He possesses an intense on-screen magnetism and has the rare ability to channel this in a variety of directions, sliding effortlessly into everything from broad comedies to dead-serious action flicks to biopics.
At the same time, he has an elusive quality: Unlike many other actors, the viewer never gets the sense that they fully know Kilmer. Instead, we always have something more to get to, something that we haven’t quite discerned – which is, of course, exactly what makes us want to watch him again and again.
Kilmer began his career at 17, when he became the youngest student ever accepted into the Juilliard Drama School. From there, he progressed quickly onto the stage and the big screen and by the early ’90s was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. But he was mostly uninterested in playing the Tinseltown game, and spent most of his non-working life on a ranch in New Mexico, sending self-made audition tapes to directors and producers he wanted to work with. As his career progressed, Kilmer began to take on smaller and more specialized roles, without ever sacrificing the quality of his performances, and eventually appeared in more than 70 movies and numerous stage productions.
Kilmer was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2015, and treatment made it difficult for him to speak, but he has continued to appear on screen, as well as to make appearances at events where his fans celebrate a career that has stretched for more than 40 years. Below, we present a list of the most memorable roles from the man who will forever be, as he noted in Tombstone, our huckleberry.
Top Secret! (1984)
Not everyone remembers that Kilmer’s first appearance on the big screen came in the Zucker-Abraham-Zucker’s follow-up to their spoof comedy Airplane! Fresh out of Juilliard, where he had dreamed of playing Hamlet on stage, Kilmer was instead cast as a ’50s-style American rock ‘n’ roll singer who is sent on a spy mission behind the Iron Curtain. The comedy is broad, hardly 15 seconds go by without a gag of one sort or another – from ridiculously oversized telephones to a scene in a bookstore which was filmed with the actors moving in reverse motion – and Kilmer absolutely nails the role. Like Leslie Neilson in Airplane! he plays it with exactly the right combination of seriousness and befuddlement. He’s aware that zany things are happening around him, but never seems to be in on the joke. It’s the kind of performance that even seasoned comedic actors might stumble over, but Kilmer never misses a step – a remarkable feat for a debut performance.
Real Genius (1985)
Directed by Martha Coolidge – who gave Nicolas Cage his first starring role two years prior in the minor masterpiece Valley Girl – Real Genius is one of the forgotten gems of ’80s comedy. The story revolves around a young science prodigy named Mitch Taylor (Gabriel Jarret) who goes to a Cal Tech-style college and finds himself involved in a plot by a nefarious professor to build a deadly laser for the military. Kilmer plays Mitch’s mentor, the brilliant, freewheeling and hedonistic Chris Knight. Although the story is Mitch’s, it’s Kilmer we’re fascinated by when he’s on the screen: He seems at once impossibly cool and un-understandably weird, and once again exudes charisma while also handling the comedic elements masterfully. Kilmer never works to upstage the younger Jarret, but it’s clear which of the two actors is headed for larger roles in the future.
Top Gun (1986)
Kilmer’s turn as Tom “Iceman” Kazansky broke him into the national consciousness. The role wasn’t only an absolute reversal from his other big screen appearances, it also presented an almost impossible task. Playing the lead in the film was Tom Cruise, as a young, cocky fighter pilot who goes to a school for the best of the best, determined to triumph over the ghosts of his own past. For the film to work, director Tony Scott needed an adversary who could go toe to toe with Cruise – maybe the biggest pure movie star of the last 40 years – in terms of both arrogance and magnetism. Kilmer delivered. Gone are any vestiges of the goofiness and comedic delivery that floated his earlier roles. In their place, Kilmer creates a swaggering character whose frosty egotism perfectly matches his nickname. At the same time, however, Kilmer is just so damn likable that when the movie asks us to hop on his side again at the end – in the famous wingman reconciliation scene with Cruise – we do it without hesitation. His brief on-screen return in 2022’s sequel Top Gun: Maverick is excellent, highly emotional and not to be spoiled here.
The Doors (1991)
By 1991, Kilmer was a star in his own right, and he cemented this status by giving one of the most chameleonic performances of his entire career, absolutely disappearing into the role of Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s biopic The Doors. And Kilmer not only played Morrison, he sang the versions of the Doors songs that appear in the film. (The originals were used for the soundtrack release.) It’s a magnificent, nuanced performance, buttressed by the many hours Kilmer spent with band producer Paul Rothchild, learning about Morrison’s idiosyncrasies – and it’s also a radically different performance than the earlier ones in Kilmer’s career. Instead of dominating the screen with his ability to project an outsized persona, he creates a character for whom nearly all the action is internal. In Kilmer’s interpretation, what is going on with Morrison is going on nearly entirely inside of him. He is a character of immense, personal storms and battles, and it’s completely believable.
Director Michael Apted made the deeply moving documentary Incident at Ogalala in 1992 about the Native American activist Leonard Peltier. Subsequent to making that movie, Apted approached the Sioux leaders of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and asked for permission to make a very loosely-based adaptation of Peltier’s story, shot on the reservation. He was the first Hollywood director granted permission to film there, and the result was Thunderheart. Kilmer plays an ambitious FBI agent named Ray Levoi, who is half-Native American but has entirely disavowed that side of his heritage. When he’s sent to investigate a killing on the reservation, he’s forced to confront this, as well as its connection to larger currents of historical oppression. Kilmer gives a rock-solid cop-movie performance, and at the same time allows his innate sensitivity to shine through. That ultimately creates a character who is far more nuanced that usually appears in films like this.
True Romance (1993)
True Romance is known for a lot of things. Written by Quentin Tarantino, it’s the film that first put him on the map in Hollywood. It also features a host of memorable performances by the likes of Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman and Brad Pitt. Yet Kilmer comes closest to stealing the show as the ghost/incarnation of Elvis Presley. He only appears briefly as a kind of spiritual advisor to the film’s hero who’s on the run from the mob with his young wife (the couple is played by Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette). Still, there’s something eerily perfect about Kilmer’s conjuring of Presley, and it lends the film an almost mythic quality that renders it unforgettable. Beyond this, the mystery of Kilmer’s appearance in True Romance – he’s almost never fully visible – coincides perfectly with his real-life position of being something of a Hollywood outsider, carving out a career entirely on his own terms.
Tombstone is filled with stars big and small, from Kurt Russell, Charlton Heston and Bill Paxton to Michael Biehn, Sam Elliott and Billy Zane. Yet it’s Kilmer who you most want to watch. His performance as Doc Holliday in the classic American story of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is the standard by which all other renditions of Holliday, past and present, will be judged – no small feat for a part that has been played by actors including Kirk Douglas, Victor Mature, Stacy Keach and Dennis Quaid. Kilmer entirely disappears into the notorious gunfighting dentist, right down to his southern accent, dissipation and the way he strokes his mustache. His extraordinary line readings make the part so memorable. When Kilmer drawls things like “Why, Johnny Ringo, you look like somebody just walked over your grave,” or “Not me – I’m in my prime,” or the legendary “I’m your huckleberry,” one wants to chuckle, shiver and stand up and cheer simultaneously, because of the way he pushes a borderline villainous character into nobility. It’s perhaps the most memorable acting of Kilmer’s career.
Kilmer’s last classic film of the ’90s was Michael Mann’s Heat. He plays Chris Shiherlis, one of the partners of Robert De Niro‘s master criminal Neil McCauley. Along with the other members of their gang, they’re involved in a series of increasingly violent and high-stakes robberies, and are eventually tracked down by Al Pacino‘s relentless cop Vincent Hanna. This is De Niro and Pacino’s show, of course, and one of the greatest crime films in American movie history, but Kilmer holds his own. Despite the fact that he was starring as Batman the same year and could easily have ego-tripped his way into trying to steal scenes, Kilmer was too intelligent an actor not to understand the way the script for Heat worked. For the film to succeed, all of the lines of tension had to radiate out from the central conflict between the two main stars, and so he stepped gracefully into a supporting role without sacrificing any hard-bitten believability. They say that character actors are some of the greatest actors there are, and here Kilmer showed that he could do that too.
The Salton Sea (2002)
Like most actors, Kilmer scored fewer roles as the star of big-budget movies as his career progressed, but the quality of his acting never dropped off. He appeared in numerous mid-budget projects of all sorts in the ’00s, and one of the best is this now mostly forgotten film. The Salton Sea features Kilmer at his most down-beat and haggard as Danny Parker, a former trumpet player who has now fallen into the meth scene in southern California. Caught between gangsters and remorseless cops, Parker is at once trying to protect his beautiful neighbor (Deborah Kara Unger) and solve the murder of his own wife. It’s a tough neo-noir crime film with comedic elements, and if you watched it without any knowledge of the expanse of Kilmer’s career, you’d have no idea that he’d once done a turn as a pretty-boy movie star.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
Maybe Kilmer’s most beloved late-career role came in Shane Black’s deliciously twisted dark crime comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The plot involves a New York actor (Robert Downey Jr.) who finds himself embroiled in a Hollywood murder mystery and falls in with Kilmer’s gay private investigator named Gay Perry. Kilmer plays it suave and sardonically amused, contrasting with Downey’s manic flightiness, and unlike many of his roles from the previous decade, he foregrounds his high-wattage star power. We’re conscious that we’re watching two masterfully charismatic actors on the screen at the same time, and we lap up every minute of it. The two play off of each other beautifully, creating an immaculate comedic chemistry that extends through physical gags, numerous verbal back-and-forths and a famous on-screen kiss. It’s a great performance in which Kilmer brings together many of the strands of his career – from comedy to icy remove to sheer watchability – and reminds us of the kind of things of which he’s capable.
Bonus: Val (2021)
This is a fascinating documentary, pieced together from interview footage with Kilmer, voice-over by his son Jack and clips from the thousands of hours of home-video footage Kilmer shot, starting as a kid and extending all the way through his movie career. Val tells the story of that career, and gives us an unflinching look behind the scenes at Kilmer’s life, triumphs, regrets and beliefs about acting. The film’s strength lies not only in the honesty with which he looks back at his career, but also in the extraordinary glimpse at his on-set life it gives us. (He wrote the voice-over, which is performed by his son because of Kilmer’s post-cancer vocal impediments.) We see Kilmer, Kelly McGillis, Rich Rossovitch (who played “Slider”) and the others on the set of Top Gun; we see the self-made audition tapes that Kilmer sent to people like Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick. We also see much less-flattering footage, such as that of his notorious confrontations with director John Frankenheimer on the set of The Island of Dr. Moreau, one of the worst train-wreck films of the ’90s. It’s not a promotional piece, but a serious attempt by Kilmer to come to terms with his life, and in that earnestness Val serves as a fitting tribute to him.
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