Actor Val Kilmer's chameleon-like ability to plunge fully and breathlessly into his characters represents both the gift that catapulted him to fame in the mid eighties, and that which - by its very nature of anonymity - held him back from megastardom for some time. Such an ability - doubtless, the result of exhaustive, heavily-disciplined training and rehearsal - also explains Kilmer's alleged on-set reputation as a perfectionist (which caused a number of major directors to supposedly tag him as 'difficult'), but the results are typically so electric that Kilmer's influx of assignments has never stopped. He is also extraordinarily selective about projects. Trying valiantly to maintain a firm hold on his career, he turned down offers for box office blockbusters including Blue Velvet, Dirty Dancing, and Indecent Proposal for personal and artistic reasons. A Los Angeles native, Kilmer acted in high school with friend Kevin Spacey before attending the Hollywood Professional School and Juilliard. He appeared on the New York stage and in Shakespeare festivals before his cinematic debut as the rock idol Nick Rivers in the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker spy spoof Top Secret! (1984). An absurd role which Kilmer plays with complete sincerity, it reveals genuine musical talent and Kilmer achieves complete credibility as a rock star. Throughout the eighties, Kilmer played as diverse an assortment of roles as could be found: he was the goofy, playfully sarcastic, egghead roommate and mentor to Gabe Jarrett in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius, the cocky Ice Man in Top Gun, and warrior Madmartigan in the Ron Howard/George Lucas fantasy Willow (1988). Kilmer's cinematic breakthrough arrived in 1991, for his portrayal of rock icon Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone's The Doors; some speculated that Stone hired Kilmer solely on the basis of the musical gifts showcased seven years prior in Top Secret!. As the philosophical, death-obsessed rocker (and druggie) Morrison, Kilmer performed a number of the Doors songs on the soundtrack, sans dubbing.
Kilmer played other American icons in his next two films - gunslinger Doc Holliday in Tombstone and the spirit of Elvis in True Romance; both did remarkable business at the box office. Due to his persistent need for an on-set dialogue with his directors, Kilmer clashed with Michael Apted on the set of Thunderheart (1992) and Joel Schumacher on the set of Batman Forever. He openly refused to repeat the Bruce Wayne role for Batman and Robin (1997). Instead, Kilmer headlined Michael Mann's 1995 Heat with two legends, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. This time around, he met with a more accommodating (or at least more tolerant) director, Michael Mann. Working with another acting veteran, he co-starred with Michael Douglas for the hunting adventure The Ghost and the Darkness. Unfortunately, his next few films were disappointments, particularly The Saint and The Island of Dr. Moreau. He switched gears a few times with little success, turning to romantic drama in At First Sight and to science fiction in Red Planet, but neither fit his dramatic intensity. After lending his booming voice to the part of Moses in the Dreamworks animated film The Prince of Egypt (1998), Kilmer appeared in The Salton Sea (1991) as a tormented drug addict. In 2003, he lined up quite a few projects, including the crime thriller Mindhunters and the drama Blind Horizon. In the same year he earned a starring role as another aggressive American icon, John Holmes ("the John Wayne of porn"), for the thriller Wonderland (2003).