‘I’m Your Huckleberry’: Val Kilmer’s candid take on Hollywood and healing

Paramount Pictures/Album/Newscom
Val Kilmer (left) and Tom Cruise star in “Top Gun” in 1986.

It’s hard to resist an autobiography that begins with the words, “Dear Reader, I have a crush on you.” That charming opening seems to undermine Val Kilmer’s later claim that he has no game when it comes to pick-up lines. The iconic actor continues his introductory chapter by elaborating that he isn’t attempting to woo us. He’s expressing gratitude for the wave of love he’s been feeling from fans of late.

Mr. Kilmer is having a moment. It’s his first in a while. The actor’s colorful career spans a climb to Hollywood’s A-list, a banishment to its blacklist, and now a resurrection on the nonfiction bestseller list. Though Mr. Kilmer’s professional life dominates “I’m Your Huckleberry,” the underlying narrative arc of his autobiography is his spiritual journey. When a movie star loses everything – wealth, status, famous girlfriends, physical abilities – what does he learn about the essence of his identity?

To hear him tell it, Mr. Kilmer was never completely comfortable with the trappings of stardom. As a child growing up in the suburban fringes of Los Angeles, he was suspicious of the snobbery of the Hollywood area. Yet he was also drawn to that cultural mecca just beyond the isolation of the San Fernando Valley. 

Why We Wrote This

Val Kilmer burst into movie stardom in 1986’s “Top Gun,” rose to leading-man status in the ‘90s, and then faced Hollywood oblivion before reinventing himself. His new memoir, “I’m Your Huckleberry,” chronicles his journey.

“Even back then I wanted to scream my declaration of freedom, though I was painfully shy,” he writes.

At age 16, Mr. Kilmer dropped out of high school to become the youngest person accepted to the drama school at Juilliard in New York. A career on Broadway was in the offing. But when he started dating the actress Cher, the world of Hollywood movies beckoned. Mr. Kilmer rues choosing film over theater by invoking an idiom: “God wants us to walk but the devil sends a limo.” He adds that treading the boards “would have been such a meaningful life, though a far less glittery one.” 

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
“I'm Your Huckleberry” by Val Kilmer, Simon & Schuster, 320 pp.

Even so, Mr. Kilmer was reluctant to play Iceman, the cocky pilot with pincushion hair and a jawline as angular as the sharp end of an F-14 fighter jet in “Top Gun.” He thought the script was shallow. Yet the movie’s most memorable scene is arguably when the insouciant Iceman ends a face-to-face confrontation with Tom Cruise’s character by snapping his teeth shut like a Hungry Hungry Hippo. Mr. Kilmer reveals it was an improvised moment. The role – which Mr. Kilmer will reprise in the upcoming sequel “Top Gun: Maverick” – made him a star.

Mr. Kilmer observes that he made it just under the wire before the “death of film.” To paraphrase Mark Twain, news of the death of film is greatly exaggerated. But cineastes may well be right that cinema is past its apex as an art form. There was once a time when the Hollywood hills loomed like Mount Olympus in popular culture, its mysterious inhabitants worshipped like gods when they descended to wander among mere mortals. And in an age in which anyone with 500,000 Instagram followers is now considered a celebrity, audiences are less invested in who’s wearing the spandex and the capes on the big screen – the character, rather than the actor, is the main draw. (For the record, Mr. Kilmer arguably boasts the most distinctive chin ever to jut from the Batman cowl.) The allure of Mr. Kilmer’s artfully written and engaging book is that it’s a glimpse into that old world, receding in the rear view, of the classic Hollywood star system. He dutifully shares behind-the-scenes anecdotes of his most beloved movies, indulges in boastful name-dropping, and offers sweet encomiums to the many famous women in his life. 

Though Mr. Kilmer trafficked in the currency of fame and fortune afforded him, the artists that he felt the deepest connection to were limelight-wary misfits such as Bob Dylan, Sam Shepard, and Marlon Brando. Mr. Kilmer’s quest for artistry often entailed clashing with directors over artistic decisions as well as practicing full-immersion method acting. He’d embody often-difficult and ugly characters for months on end. It cost him private and professional relationships. 

“I had been deemed difficult and alienated the head of every major studio. I looked at the industry from the inside out, and from the outside in, and in a conscious and deeply satisfying act of authenticity, I hung up my hat,” he says.

The actor found his own escape from Tinseltown in New Mexico. He purchased a ranch that he intended to turn into an artists’ colony, but he ended up selling the property at a loss during the 2008 financial crisis. By that point, most of his acting work in direct-to-video releases might have been contenders for Razzie Awards had anyone actually seen them. Or as he puts it, “work that I’d describe as less than lofty.” Worse circumstances were still to come. Mr. Kilmer was diagnosed with throat cancer, and he later had two emergency tracheotomies to help him breathe.

Mr. Kilmer’s autobiography is often astonishingly candid – he’s the rare A-list actor who’s unafraid to reveal his eccentricities – but he’s just as often opaque about some aspects of his life. You won’t find out too much, for example, about his son and daughter, nor Mr. Kilmer’s older brother who all but disappears after an account of their childhood years. It’s his prerogative, of course, to keep some things for himself. However, Mr. Kilmer truly opens up about how his fall from grace has forced a great measure of introspection. As he puts it, he’s begun looking outside himself in an effort to deflate his ego. “Clearly I’m vain, but I’m workin’ on it, baby, I’m workin’ on it. In fact, I’ve never met anyone who has worked so hard on their vanity. LOL,” he writes.

He’s found succor in the writings of two figures of the 19th century: Mark Twain and Mary Baker Eddy. A few years ago, Mr. Kilmer wrote and starred in a solo stage show about Mr. Twain. The title of Mr. Kilmer’s autobiography, a quote from the movie “Tombstone,” is also an allusion to “Huckleberry Finn.”

Mr. Kilmer’s primary inspiration is Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered Christian Science and founded this publication. Mr. Kilmer’s parents were Christian Scientists. He writes, “I inherited their faith through hard-fought experimentation and proof.” He lays out his interpretation of the teachings of Christian Science and credits prayer to God, whom he frequently refers to as divine Love, for healing his cancer “much faster than any of the doctors predicted.”

The earlier tracheotomy procedures have limited his ability to speak. The most affecting part of the book is how Mr. Kilmer writes about the tribulation of being stripped of one of the primary tools of his craft – his voice. Now he’s expressing his creativity as a visual artist, and has founded an artist’s community center in Los Angeles called HelMel. He’s also finding new ways to tell stories as a writer.

“I made a decision that, rather than looking for Love, I would let Love be me. Let Love be my life. Let Love seep through the pages of this, my life story,” he writes.

By the end of “I’m Your Huckleberry,” readers may well develop a crush on Val Kilmer.

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