Tragic Details About Val Kilmer

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With the release of "Top Gun: Maverick," one of the most iconic characters from cinema finally returned to the big screen. And no, we're not talking about Captain Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, as played by Tom Cruise, we're talking about Iceman, Maverick's hotshot foil brought to life by the peerless Val Kilmer

In his four-plus decade career, Val Kilmer has earned accolades as an amazing actor and drawn ire for being an amazing pain to work with. On the screen, has embodied rock stars, superheroes, spies, and gunslingers. Off the screen, he has battled private demons, loved and lost many a time, battled a life-threatening illness, and come to be as respected as he is misunderstood.

"Top Gun: Maverick," combined with an intimate, often heart-wrenching documentary from 2021 all about — and largely made by — Kilmer that was simply called "Val," have put this man back in the minds of many. But what fans of Kilmer's work in movies may not know is just how much tragedy there has been in his life, and how early the string of tough luck started. If ever there was an actor well supplied with challenging source material from his real life, it's Val Kilmer. The ironic thing is that he hardly needed the help: a difficult co-star or not, Val Kilmer is undeniably as talented and versatile a performer as can be found.

He never really got over his parents' divorce

Val Kilmer and his two brothers, one older and one just a year younger, were raised by their parents together until Val was 9 years old. Then, in 1968, the Kilmers divorced and following the split, the three sons went to live with their father. As shared by The Telegraph, Val never really got over the divorce — he certainly didn't process the separation healthily while still in his own youth, at any rate. Despite living with his dad, Val described becoming distant from his father and at times generally despondent, saying: "I was quiet. More contemplative than outgoing. [And] things didn't go well between me and my father for a very long time."

Never really having dealt with the emotions of the divorce that occurred back in the late 1960s, when Val Kilmer's father passed away in the mid-1990s, he and his older brother, Mark, would end up clashing badly as they tried to settle their late father's affairs, according to People. Perhaps the only good that came of the divorce was that shortly after his parents separated, Val began to show an active interest in drama, taking classes perhaps as a way to use acting to escape the challenges of his real life.

Val Kilmer's struggles as an actor began when he was 12

According to an interview Val Kilmer granted to the show "At First Sight" in 1999, later shared on YouTube, Kilmer's struggles with his art started at a very young age. The actor didn't land the first part for which he ever tried out, in fact, but it wasn't because he was not up to the job, rather because he just couldn't bring himself to commit. Kilmer, a noted method actor, said that he walked off the set of a hamburger commercial because he simply couldn't convince himself to "believe" in the burgers, and if he did not believe what his character was saying, he could not play the part.

Now again, this was a hamburger commercial, and Val Kilmer was 12 years old at the time. But with a few years of drama classes already under his belt and a clear sense of himself as an actor, he just couldn't will the performance and he did not land the role of the kid in the burger commercial.

His younger brother died in a tragic accident

When Val Kilmer was just 17 years old, a truly terrible tragedy struck his family. His younger brother, Wesley, who was 16 years old, died in a shocking accident. Per People, Wesley had epilepsy and happened to experience a seizing fit while he was in a swimming pool. The teenager died by drowning, leaving Val bereft. Though different than his parents' divorce eight years earlier, it was another example of loss in Val Kilmer's young life.

Val managed to pull himself together, though, because also while age 17, he entered the esteemed drama program of Juilliard School in New York City, becoming the youngest person ever accepted into that august body at the time. He was still more than half a decade away from any meaningful success on the stage (his first passion) or the screen, but Val Kilmer was well on his way, and he had left his home and family, riven as it was, on the far coast.

Val Kilmer's marriage ended bitterly

Val Kilmer and actress Joanne Whalley got to know each other and fell in love while working together on the unique Ron Howard-helmed action-adventure movie "Willow," which came out in 1988. The pair married and had two children, a daughter named Mercedes and a son named Jack, but their love story was not to be long-lived and would end quite badly. 

Per FOX News, the pair divorced in 1996, and the split did not go well. Whalley long suspected Kilmer of infidelity, and per the British tabloid the Daily Mail, it's entirely likely he was indeed courting world-famous supermodel Cindy Crawford, with whom he did later have a public relationship for a time, as their marriage was falling apart.

Kilmer would later say that part of what doomed the relationship with his ex-wife was his full commitment to the role of Jim Morrison in "The Doors," as he spent the better part of a year essentially acting as if he were the troubled rocker due to his devotion to method acting. Whalley had divorce papers served to Kilmer while he was on the set of "The Island Of Dr. Moreau." That film was directed by John Frankenheimer, one of many in Hollywood who would later claim he hated working with Kilmer and who, according to the Orlando Sentinel, would later say: "I will never climb Mount Everest, and I will never work with Val Kilmer again. There isn't enough money in the world." 

He developed a reputation as terrible to work with

"The Island Of Dr. Moreau" director John Frankenheimer was not the only person who openly hated working with Val Kilmer. Not by a long shot. In fact, Kilmer managed to develop a reputation as one of the worst actors with whom to work in the entire American film industry. In 1996, Entertainment Weekly even published an article with the headline "Val Kilmer Makes Enemies In Hollywood," which included the line: "many in Hollywood are loath to work with him, no matter how big the box office payback."

Remember that in 1996, Kilmer had already lit up screens in one of the finest crime thrillers of the modern era, "Heat," which featured Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, he had played one of the most famous characters of all time, Batman, in the film "Batman Forever," he had re-created a pitch-perfect Jim Morrison, he had played Doc Holiday in "Tombstone," and, of course, he had been Iceman in "Top Gun." Kilmer was still earning multiple millions of dollars, but his reputation for difficulty on set surely cost him plentiful opportunities. The sad fact is that often the issues were caused because Kilmer really was trying to do his best possible work for a project, and in fully committing to his craft, he was not a decent enough person off-screen. 

Per IndieWire, in the documentary "Val," he acknowledged his own troubled past, saying: "I have behaved poorly. I have behaved bravely, bizarrely to some," adding: "I see myself as a sensitive, intelligent human being but with the soul of a clown."

The Great Recession cost Val Kilmer his beloved ranch

In the mid-1990s, shortly before his divorce and while he was riding high on a string of box office hits like "Heat" and "Batman Forever," Val Kilmer bought some land that, for him, was like a little slice of heaven. Or not so little, really: he purchased a property in San Miguel County, New Mexico that was well over 5,000 acres in size, according to CBS News. The sprawling ranch property, which had once been called Forked Lightning by a previous owner, spanned the Pecos River (pictured) for more than six miles, had hundreds of acres suitable for grazing animals, and had several structures as well, in the form of residences and cabins. For a while, Kilmer ran a bed and breakfast as part of the massive estate, though it was a challenge for him to get approval for such usage after he made some derogatory comments about the local population.

By the year 2006, money woes were catching up to Kilmer, who it was revealed owed the IRS half a million dollars in back taxes. According to The Wall Street Journal, the actor tried first to sell a 1,800-acre parcel of the ranch for $18 million. That failed, and in 2009, he posted for sale a smaller 1,000-acre parcel with three guest houses for $12 million, then the price was reduced to $9 million mere months later.

In 2011, Kilmer finally sold off 5,328 acres of the ranch for $18.5 million (he had first sought $33 million for the bulk of the property), keeping a mere 14 acres for himself.

He struggled with weight gain for many years

Toned and taut as Iceman in 1986, thin and willowy as Jim Morrison in 1991, by the later years of the 2000s, Val Kilmer was middle-aged and was quite out of shape and overweight. And the tabloids and papers took cruel notice. In 2007, the Daily Mail ran an infantile and degrading headline that read "Val Kilmer Goes from Batman to Fatman" over an article that included quotes like: "Where a six-pack once rippled on Val Kilmer's chest, now stands what looks more like a rather large beer belly." (Wait, chest?)

Kilmer would start to turn his physical health around a few years later, apparently beginning to take long walks on the beach near his Malibu, California home and adopting a healthier diet, per Yahoo! Entertainment. By the middle of the next decade, his weight loss efforts had been a success. But, of course, many in the media couldn't resist adding subtle barbs from the other end of the spectrum, and now Kilmer was often described in very different but also unflattering terms. Witness yet another Daily Mail headline from December of 2014 that read: "Gaunt Val Kilmer reveals dramatically shrinking frame while shopping at Levi's in Malibu."

Harsh words about a 55-year-old man who had managed to slim back down to a healthy weight.

Val Kilmer misses many of the woman with whom he had relationships

Obviously, relationships ending was never really anything new for Val Kilmer, starting back with his parents splitting up before he was even in middle school. And then there was the relationship he had with Cher in the 1980s; she was 13 years his senior and already a world-famous star, while he was just starting his ascent to fame. Kilmer would say of Cher in his memoir "I'm Your Huckleberry," "Once Cher works her way inside your head and heart, she never leaves. For her true friends, her steadfast love and loyalty never die," as reported by People

One very notable breakup was with Val Kilmer's ex-wife and mother of his children, Joanne Whalley. After that marriage ended (and maybe before the relationship officially ended) Kilmer was involved with model Cindy Crawford. 

But the actor described his most painful breakup ever as the end of a brief relationship with actress Daryl Hannah. The pair became close while working on a film in 2001, and would spend quite a bit of time alone in intimate privacy at his New Mexico property. In his book, Kilmer would later write: "Lord knows I've suffered heartache. But Daryl was by far the most painful of all. (Neil Young, I always loved you, but I'm afraid I hate you now.)" That parenthetical was a reference to the fact that, in 2018, Hannah married the legendary singer.

Throat cancer almost killed him and took away his voice

It's now very public knowledge that Val Kilmer fought off nearly-fatal throat cancer and in the process forever lost his voice, one of the aspects of him that was so recognizable and even iconic, and that was indispensable for roles like Jim Morrison in "The Doors." (Per the Orlando Sentinel, Kilmer did all of his own singing for the role; his ability to do so was in fact one of the reasons Oliver Stone cast him as Morrison.) For several years, Kilmer kept his battle with cancer private, even denying his diagnosis after actor Michael Douglas rather accidentally revealed it with the public remarks that Kilmer was "dealing with exactly what I had," per CNN.

In 2017, Kilmer finally publicly admitted that he had fought and beaten cancer, first revealing it with a rather arcane choice of words used during a Reddit AMA (or Ask Me Anything) online chat with fans in which he said he "did have a healing of cancer." That "healing of cancer" was actually two tracheotomies and chemotherapy that the actor endured over the course of about two years starting in 2015, per Parade. That is seriously invasive, taxing stuff and it speaks to the severity of the cancer Kilmer had to overcome. And in fact, even as recently as the summer of 2021, the actor described himself as "still recovering," as reported via CNN.

Val Kilmer has described himself as chronically lonely in recent years

It's hard to imagine one of the biggest Hollywood stars of the past four decades as feeling lonely. Val Kilmer is a man who has had relationships with some of the most famed women of our day, who has worked with the biggest stars on the planet, and who has generally been in the public spotlight for most of his life. Yet per People, according his book "I'm Your Huckleberry," Kilmer says: "I am lonely part of every day."

He writes that he has not had a girlfriend in two decades, which has only exacerbated his loneliness. It also means he faced his cancer battle without a close romantic companion. Fortunately for Kilmer, it does seem that in those years he managed to develop a closer relationship with his children, who were instrumental in helping with the creation of the documentary "Val."

Val Kilmer hated working on some of his most iconic films

Val Kilmer became Jim Morrison — his acting was pitch-perfect and he embodied the ill-fated frontman to a tee. And Kilmer loved working on the movie "Heat," saying during a Reddit AMA session: "Well imagine being able to say, 'Al and Bob' for the rest of your life. Not many people can do that. I have seen Bob, giggling like a schoolgirl in a van in the middle of the night, because we have to be quiet cause they are filming outside ... I have been hugged by Al Pacino in the middle of downtown LA like he was my older brother. I have shot live rounds from high-powered assault weapons over Bob's head while rehearsing lines from our film. I got to kiss Ashley Judd. I sometimes lived at Michael Mann's house. ... Priceless experience. Watching ALL the actors do their thing. ... Loved every minute of it."

But "Batman Forever?" He hated working on the film, describing himself as feeling like a puppet in a bat costume, per the British tabloid the Daily Mail. And Kilmer initially hated the role of Iceman in "Top Gun," writing in his memoir "I'm Your Huckleberry" (via Screen Rant) that he "felt the script was silly." He even tried to botch his audition, adding, "I read the lines indifferently and yet, amazingly, I was told I had the part. I felt more deflated than inflated."

Val Kilmer's kids helped create the bittersweet documentary Val

In 2021, the unique documentary "Val" was released by Amazon Studios. Its description reads: "Val Kilmer, one of Hollywood's most mercurial actors has been documenting his life and craft through film. He has amassed thousands of hours of footage, from home movies made with his brothers, to time spent in iconic roles for blockbuster films like 'Top Gun' and 'Batman.' This raw and wildly original documentary reveals a life lived to extremes and a heart-filled look at what it means to be an artist."

The film is an amalgamation of private footage and public footage over which the actor speaks about his life — or at least it sounds that way, given the first-person use of language and the fact that the voice sounds just like Val Kilmer. But in fact, the person speaking is Kilmer's son, Jack, since the elder Kilmer's voice was lost to cancer. Jack and his sister, Mercedes, were instrumental in the production of "Val," having helped sort through some 800 hours of footage their dad had, appearing in the documentary prominently themselves, and doing much to promote the film, as well, per the Los Angeles Times.