From his pivotal role as Doc in Tombstone to his dead man act in a Polish Spaghetti Western.
- Written by Henry Cabot Beck
- Published August 01, 2008
Ever since Val Kilmer first appeared as a parody of Elvis in the 1984 comedy Top Secret!, he's had one of the most interesting careers in Hollywood history.
He’s been the voice of God, Moses and K.I.T.T, the car in the new Knight Rider. He’s tackled the role of porn superstar John Holmes (Wonderland), played renowned artist Willem de Kooning (Pollock), worn the nippled Batsuit in Batman Forever and Simon Templar’s halo as The Saint.
He was fantastic as Jim Morrison in The Doors, Elvis (again) in True Romance and is directing himself as Mark Twain (see YouTube item).
And Kilmer, who lives in New Mexico, has appeared as two of the Western’s most important figures, Billy the Kid, in a rethinking of The Left Handed Gun, and as Doc Holliday in Tombstone. Of the pair, it’s his role as Holliday that will probably stand out as the greatest performance of Kilmer’s life. Kilmer drew on some of his family’s experiences when he developed the character for the 1993 film.
“My grandfather was a gold miner from the South and had made, roughly, in the same period of time, the same journey as Doc Holliday,” says Kilmer. “He’d come out west from the South.”
“But my grandfather had my father when he was 60, so he was out there in the 1880s as a young man, a teenager, living in the desert, and he had my father in the 1920s. So I was raised with a lot of Wild West stories that my father had experienced or had heard from his father.”
Like Richard III, Holliday is an actor’s dream part, especially for actors who like extra meat on their hambones. There’s the cough and the tuberculosis, the anger and the icy cool, the eternal bond with Wyatt Earp and the Apache-dance passion with Big Nose Kate. Like James Bond, Holliday is a high culture killer and an expert gambler, with a love for excess and a deadpan wit. And there’s the deep Southern charm, wrapped in a shroud of romantic doom.
“I went to a dinner and Kirk Douglas was there,” says Kilmer, “and he started poking me in the chest, laughing about the Doc Holliday thing, and he said, ‘I don’t know if it was true for you, but the hardest thing was [deciding] when to cough, cause you never know how much or how little.’”
Portrayals of Holliday actually predate the first official appearance of Wyatt Earp, probably because for the longest time Earp’s widow, Josephine, cracked legal whips whenever anyone came close to launching the character on screen. Holliday appears in Law for Tombstone (1937), a Buck Jones picture, two years before he reappeared as Doc Holliday (Cesar Romero), alongside Wyatt Earp’s first bow in the 1939 Randolph Scott picture Frontier Marshal.
But for all the many portrayals of Holliday, none had dared, or been allowed, to endow him with the thick antiquated Southern accent that Kilmer brought to the part, nor had he ever played a Chopin nocturne before.
“I think Kevin [Jarre, the scriptwriter of Tombstone] really understood him and things...
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