The arrest was already five-day-old news when the fax arrived in the mail rooms of entertainment executives across L.A. The headline — FBI DETAINS SUSPECT IN UNABOMBER HUNT — offered no forward spin. But those who received the transmission, sent by a high-powered friend, were in on the joke: In place of the photograph of a glowering Theodore Kaczynski was the smiling, suntanned, sunglasses-wearing Val Kilmer.
When it was announced last February that Kilmer, 36, would not return as the Caped Crusader in Batman and Robin, the forthcoming fourth installment of Hollywood’s billion-dollar-plus movie franchise, the utter lack of public distress on the part of Warner Bros. was a sure sign that something had gone amiss for Kilmer. Since first coming to attention in the comedy Top Secret! (1984), the actor had solidified his reputation as a versatile leading man playing parts like Jim Morrison in The Doors (1991) and Doc Holliday in Tombstone (1993). Then, last summer, he had proved his commercial viability in the $184 million-grossing Batman Forever, spinning that success into four other projects: the cop thriller Heat, this August’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, this fall’s turn-of-the-century African adventure The Ghost and the Darkness with Michael Douglas, and a now-filming remake of the 1960s television series The Saint with Elisabeth Shue.
But just as Kilmer‘s $6 million-per-picture paycheck has come to reflect his clout, his reputation for being difficult has soared. His prolific schedule notwithstanding, many in Hollywood are loath to work with him, no matter how big the box office payback.
It’s no special feat to be voted Mr. Unpopularity in an industry that seems to create a new contender every month, but it’s virtually unheard-of for the griping to become public. Nonetheless, here are the testimonials from some of Kilmer‘s recent colleagues: As Richard Stanley, who directed Kilmer for three days in The Island of Dr. Moreau before being fired, recalls, “Val would arrive, and an argument would happen.” Says John Frankenheimer, who replaced Stanley: “I don’t like Val Kilmer, I don’t like his work ethic, and I don’t want to be associated with him ever again.” And Batman Forever director Joel Schumacher calls his onetime star “childish and impossible.”
Kilmer, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has had a tumultuous year: Last July, he separated from his wife of seven years, actress Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, with whom he has two children, Mercedes, 4, and Jack, 1 (he’s since taken up with Cindy Crawford), and has been working nonstop in locations as varied as Australia, South Africa, and Russia. But even that stress, say those who know him, cannot excuse incidents like the time he burned a cameraman with a cigarette while filming Moreau. Some suggest that Kilmer‘s behavior hasn’t gotten worse; it’s just that more people are paying attention.
Kilmer‘s brother, Mark, 37, thinks Kilmer‘s troubles are unsurprising. “We all have grandiose, narcissistic tendencies,” says Mark, a doctoral student of psychology who has not spoken to his brother since their father’s funeral in 1993. “If there are people helping those tendencies along, it’s hard to resist.”
Kilmer, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley and attended Juilliard, has always come with a “Handle with care” sign. Although Tombstone producer James Jacks says, “He behaved well on my movie, and I’d be happy to work with him again,” Kilmer‘s reputation for volatility preceded him, and at times, the star seemed to play up to it. Tombstone’s first director, Kevin Jarre, who was fired after a month of shooting, says, “There’s a dark side to Val that I don’t feel comfortable talking about,” but offers this anecdote. One day on the set, he and Kilmer “were deep in conversation about Doc Holliday, and this stand-in brought over a very colorful sort of locust and said, ‘Look what I found!’ 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.'”
Or with people who don’t share his opinion. Oliver Stone, who had no complaints about Kilmer‘s behavior on the Doors set, acknowledges that the actor “is passionate about his work–with the wrong approach, you may see a side of him you don’t like.” That side can be violent: An executive on The Real McCoy (1993), a bank-heist flop in which Kilmer starred with Kim Basinger, says Kilmer became so enraged when director Russell Mulcahy declined to alter a scene to his specifications that he fired his prop gun at a prop car.
When Kilmer signed to do Batman Forever two years ago, Schumacher braced himself. “I had heard horror stories about Val and was warned not to hire him,” he says. “But I have heard that about many talented people, hired them anyway, and had no problems whatsoever.”
This time, Schumacher was less fortunate. After a couple of weeks of shooting, Kilmer‘s behavior had eroded to the point where Schumacher says he and Kilmer “had a physical pushing match. He was being irrational and ballistic with the first AD, the cameraman, the costume people. He was badly behaved, he was rude and inappropriate. I was forced to tell him that this would not be tolerated for one more second. Then we had two weeks where he did not speak to me, but it was bliss.” As for Kilmer‘s absence from Batman and Robin, which starts shooting this August, “he sort of quit, we sort of fired him,” says Schumacher. “It probably depends on who’s telling the story.”
In fact, says a Warner Bros. insider, Kilmer‘s contract required him to make a second Bat-film; when Kilmer announced that he would be making The Saint for Paramount until mid-July, leaving only days to prepare for Batman and Robin, Warner Bros. reminded Paramount that Kilmer was due on Batman Aug. 1. “They went insane,” says the source, “and said they’d make The Saint without Val. Suddenly Val says, ‘Then I won’t do Batman,’ thinking we’d say, ‘Oh, come a month later.'” Instead, Warner Bros. kept its start date, released Kilmer from his contract, and handed the Batsuit to George Clooney.
Val Kilmer likes to make trouble. With a strong director, he performs. In the absence of one, he can become a liability, as he proved last fall on the set of The Island of Dr. Moreau, the New Line sci-fi jungle adventure whose tormented production became an apotheosis of all that is absurd about Hollywood.
“‘YOUR PROBLEM,’ SAID BRANDO, ‘IS YOU CONFUSE YOUR TALENT WITH THE SIZE OF YOUR PAYCHECK'”
Director Richard Stanley spent four years developing what would become the story of a marooned lawyer who discovers an island inhabited by a mad scientist (played by Marlon Brando), his assistant, Montgomery, and their terrifying “humanimal” creations. New Line agreed to fund the project with Kilmer on board in the starring role, but then the actor began to waffle about spending so much time on camera. “Val‘s opening gambit was to reduce the lead by 40 percent,” says Stanley. “My initial note to him, which started the relationship off badly was, ‘No, we can’t reduce the role–you’re crazy.’ So I came up with a way to save my own ass. I was the stupid idiot who suggested he play Montgomery.” Eager to mollify a star who, post-Batman, could sell tickets, New Line agreed and gave the leading role to Rob Morrow. “New Line’s point of view was, Val was the money,” says Stanley, “and if it came down to being between me and Val…”
It took only three days. Last summer, Morrow, Kilmer, and the Moreau crew headed down to Queensland, Australia, with Brando planning to follow them. The first day, with the script still being rewritten, Kilmer and the humanimals, played by actors in costumes, set out to the sea on a storm-swept morning. “He’d do [the lines] but he’d throw it all away,” says Stanley. “And he kept insisting on odd bits and pieces of his wardrobe that didn’t make sense, like a piece of blue material wrapped around his arm. It was like, ‘Why is that around his arm, and will he take it off?'” According to an actor on the set, the lines Kilmer recited were “lines written for other characters, in other scenes.”
On the second day, when Kilmer didn’t show up until 3 p.m., Stanley still wasn’t worried. “An agent at CAA,” which represents both the director and Kilmer, “told me not to worry, that every Val movie loses the first two days.” But on the fourth day, after seeing the dailies that Stanley had shipped to L.A., New Line fired the director. Stanley believes that Kilmerinfluenced New Line’s decision: “He would refuse to rehearse. He’s clever, because then we’d just shoot it, and the moment you shoot it, it’s rushes, and it goes back to the company.” Michael DeLuca, New Line’s president of production and development, says, “I didn’t give [Kilmer] a strong director. And that was my fault.”
New Line stopped production, and brought in director John Frankenheimer; Morrow, who wouldn’t comment, fled the set and was replaced by David Thewlis (whose character was completely rewritten). “By the time Brando arrived, the script had collapsed,” says Stanley. “No one was willing to say no to anything, which is why Brando wears an ice bucket on his head in one scene.” (Brando did not respond to a request for an interview.)
Frankenheimer and Kilmer were a combustible match as well. One evening, Kilmer turned to the director and asked, “You know what I think?” To which Frankenheimer responded, “I don’t give a f—. Get off my set.” Brando made Kilmer feel equally unwelcome, moving his trailer away from the young actor’s and one-upping him in delays. “Between Kilmer and Brando, we didn’t shoot for 12 days, with all the crew just standing around,” says a member of the production team, who adds that one day, when Kilmer was in Brando’s trailer, Brando told him, “Your problem is, you confuse your talent with the size of your paycheck.”
Nor did Kilmer earn any fans when the lit end of his cigarette met the face of a camera operator. “Val was sort of teasing him with the end of his cigarette and burned this guy’s sideburn,” says Moreau executive producer Tim Zinnemann. “The guy was upset, naturally.” But one who witnessed the incident has a different opinion: “He burned that cameraman right on his face, and no, he wasn’t fooling around. It was intentional. He did apologize to the crew.”
Frankenheimer and Kilmer were united on one point: the fear that Stanley would return to the set and burn it down. (Stanley says this was based simply on a joking comment he made to the production designer.) What they didn’t realize is that Stanley had been there all along–with the help of the makeup and costume people, he’d returned as a humanimal extra. “I decided to come back as a melting bulldog,” says Stanley. “I didn’t know Frankenheimer or the assistant directors, so they didn’t recognize me. I couldn’t have come that far and not seen Brando.” At Brando’s wrap party, “I took the dog mask off and showed who I was. Kilmer came up and hugged and kissed me and said how sorry he was.”
Frankenheimer says simply, “Will Rogers never met Val Kilmer.”
Some of Kilmer‘s colleagues offer measured praise for the actor. “He was very generous,” says Tombstone’s Jarre. “I asked Val to build up this actor’s confidence before a scene. The actor was sweating, he needed it, and Val came through.” Heat’s Michael Mann says he “had an absolutely terrific time dealing with him” when Kilmer played a psychotic killer. “He worked his ass off.”
Kilmer may be minding his manners now that he’s lost the Batman gig. As Stanley points out, “He doesn’t have the power he once had, or thought he had. He’s had to fold his tent and play it a bit more carefully.”
“Relations with Val on The Saint I can only describe as peachy,” says director Phillip Noyce. “Sweet and ripe and all that.” Echoes producer David Brown, “Val has been a complete gentleman. He’s given us extra days he’s not required to do by contract. He’s been very adaptable.” But, Brown acknowledges, “most artists require someone who will listen to them–you’d better listen to a serious actor, and Val is a serious actor.”
As for whether Kilmer is serious trouble, not everyone agrees. With “too much money and too many people blowing smoke up his ass,” says Zinnemann, “it’s like giving an 8-year-old a machine gun and saying ‘Don’t fire it.'” Jarre agrees. “Maybe there’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde thing going on with him inside. Maybe he’s like those children who test the limits and if parents don’t stand up to them, they just become monsters.” Or movie stars.
—Additional reporting by Judy Brennan, Anne Thompson, and Jeffrey Wells