An interesting, albeit brief memoir
Legendary actor Val Kilmer shares the stories behind his most beloved roles, reminisces about his star-studded career and love life, and reveals the truth behind his recent health struggles in a remarkably candid autobiography.
Val Kilmer has played many iconic roles over his nearly four-decade film career. A table-dancing Cold War agent in Top Secret! A troublemaking science prodigy in Real Genius. A brash fighter pilot in Top Gun. A swashbuckling knight in Willow. A lovelorn bank robber in Heat. A charming master of disguise in The Saint. A wise-cracking detective in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Of course, Batman, Jim Morrison and the sharp-shooting Doc Holliday.
But who is the real Val Kilmer? With I’m Your Huckleberry — published ahead of next summer’s highly anticipated sequel Top Gun: Maverick, in which Kilmer returns to the big screen as Tom “Iceman” Kazansky — the enigmatic actor at last steps out of character and reveals his true self.
In this uniquely assembled memoir — featuring vivid prose, snippets of poetry and rarely-seen photos — Kilmer reflects on his acclaimed career, including becoming the youngest actor ever admitted to the Juilliard School’s famed drama department, determinedly campaigning to win the lead part in The Doors, and realizing a years-long dream of performing a one-man show as his hero Mark Twain. He shares candid stories of working with screen legends Marlon Brando, Tom Cruise, Robert Downey Jr. and Robert De Niro, and recounts high-profile romances with Cher, Cindy Crawford, Daryl Hannah, and former wife Joanne Whalley. He chronicles his spiritual journey and lifelong belief in Christian Science, and describes travels to far-flung locales such as a scarcely inhabited island in the Indian Ocean where he suffered from delirium and was cared for by the resident tribe. And he reveals details of his recent throat cancer diagnosis and recovery — about which he has disclosed little until now.
I think the first movie of Kilmer’s that I saw was Batman Forever. While reading I’m Your Huckleberry, I realized that I hadn’t seen as many of Kilmer’s movies as I thought I had. What I have seen, however, I’ve much always enjoyed: Heat, Tombstone, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang… his is a filmography that is varied, interesting and extensive. Sure, there are franchises (or potential franchises), but his career has also included somewhat unconventional choices. In his memoir, he offers an engaging, albeit brief, glimpse into his life and career, and generous portraits and memories of those who have influenced and enriched his life. I quite enjoyed it.
The synopsis promises quite a lot. It sort of delivers. Before he gets to his acting career, he writes fondly and honestly about his upbringing, which alternated between privileged and difficult. His love for his family is clear, despite his strained relationship with his father. Throughout the book, we can see how important family is to Kilmer. In his introduction and again towards the end of the book, he writes about the nearly catastrophic cancer that almost ended his life, and has robbed him of much of his voice. (It hasn’t slowed him down too much, though, as he continues to work and be involved in acting projects.)
For many, I’m sure, Kilmer’s memories and reflections about his acting career will be of most interest. After all, it’s been a pretty varied and extensive career. (Weirdly, I realized the latest movie of his that I’ve seen is 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.) He writes about his time making movies like Top Gun, Willow, The Doors, Tombstone, Batman Forever, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Heat, The Ghost and the Darkness, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and more. However, each account is quite brief. He’s unfailingly positive and generous about those he worked with — with particular praise for Tom Cruise, his professional “rival” in their early years, and on-screen rival in Top Gun; Al Pacino and Robert de Niro, who “embody the characters they play — but they take radically different paths to arrive there”; Robert Downey Jr., a “super-actor [who] became a superhero”; Marlon Brando, who inspired his love of acting and movies; and many others. He also writes fondly of his various celebrity partners, all of whom he still seems to be on good terms with and keep in touch (especially Cher, who he credits with saving his life).
Kilmer writes about how he gave up the Batman franchise after schedules were changed and he had to choose between continuing as the Caped Crusader or working with Al Pacino and Robert de Niro on Michael Mann’s Heat. Understandably, the lure of working with “Al and Bob” was too powerful to resist.
… I had to take the Heat.
My agent at the time strongly recommended that I pass. “Are you kidding?” I asked.
“Val, the pay is less than your per diem for Batman.”
“But it’s Michael Mann directing. And it’s Pacino and De Niro. If I do the movie, I’ll get to call them Al and Bob for the rest of my life.”
“Financially it makes no sense.” But I wasn’t thinking finances. I was thinking folklore. Oh, just to collect some deeply nuanced, joyous stories about the Godfather films! Just to be able to say “Al and Bob” for the rest of my life!
Impossible to fault that logic, especially given how brilliant Heat turned out to be. However, over the course of his memoir, he shares rather few of his own stories. Those he does share are rather short, and he moves on quickly. His chapters are brief snapshots of moments in his life; people he’s known, loved and worked with; and the varied projects he’s worked on. His stories are often joyous and positive, true, but one can’t help but think there were more that could have been told. It feels greedy to complain about this, and I know that I’m far more interested in behind-the-scenes stories than many others (not gossip, just stories about movie-making).
Overall, I’m Your Huckleberry is an engaging memoir from a gifted actor, with a pretty distinctive and unexpected view of life and his craft. A quiet rebel, who pushes himself and is constantly on the look-out for new ways to explore his creativity, share it, and nurture and give opportunities to others. It’s a generous memoir, and I’m sure every fan of Kilmer’s work will enjoy it. As I’ve mentioned, it was brief, and I did finish it wishing he’d spent a bit more time writing about his movies. That aside, it was nevertheless an interesting and enjoyable read.