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Kilmer’s Quiet Success : Movies: Val Kilmer, who’s starring in ‘Tombstone,’ prefers not to make too much of his popularity.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Eighty years ago, Joyce Kilmer wrote, “I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree.” Strong roots notwithstanding, the first famous Kilmer probably also never thought he’d see any of his descendants in 70 millimeter, larger than life and making female hearts go pitter-patter.

But second cousin (twice removed) Val Kilmer, 33, with swept-back blond hair parted in the middle and sharp green eyes, is already known around the world as film’s Jim Morrison from “The Doors.”

As the womanizing courtly gambler and Southern Gentleman Doc Holliday in Disney’s “Tombstone,” which opened Christmas Day, he twirls six-shooters, coughs up blood, and somehow manages to make tuberculosis look romantic.

“He worked very hard at the part,” says director George Cosmatos. The role, which should be secondary to Kurt Russell’s star turn as the law-abiding Wyatt Earp, quickly becomes the centerpiece of this updated retelling of the legendary shootout at the O.K. Corral. “He works harder than most actors to make it look believable,” Cosmatos says. “He’s in the ranks of the great actors in America like Pacino or De Niro.”

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“Doc Holliday was not just a Southerner,” Kilmer says, “but an aristocrat with very strict rules of conduct. He was very loyal to Wyatt Earp and did many things--some of which are in the film--that weren’t in his best interest.” The film’s authenticity, Kilmer says, comes from screenwriter Kevin Jarre’s attention to “how everyone wore their wealth on their bodies. They said who they were by how they turned their hats and what colors they wore.”

For his part, Kilmer sounds anything but movie-star jaded about his current visit to New York. “A friend of mine invited me to Phil Donahue’s apartment for dinner last night,” he says as he settles down in a Manhattan hotel suite for an interview. “It was big-- really big,” he says, describing the Donahue pad. “It was a sit-down dinner for 250 people. And the place was all windows .”

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This morning he wears golden brown designer corduroys, a soft-beige suede bomber jacket, and a too-small boxy black cotton sweater. It moves against, not with him, requiring constant reconfiguring. When he speaks, his voice is nasal and flat, like Jack Nicholson’s, a product of the Santa Fe desert where he makes his home.

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Dinner with Phil and Marlo is not the only non-movie business Kilmer has come to New York for: He attended Sotheby’s auction of Vivien Leigh memorabilia and bought his wife, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer--who will star next year as the title character in the “Gone With the Wind” sequel, the CBS miniseries “Scarlett"--some Christmas presents. Namely: an Agnes McBean “GWTW"-era photograph of Leigh, floating against a backdrop of clouds. And some handmade kid gloves from France. “They look like they’ll fit her,” he says. “Maybe she’ll wear them in the show.”

Kilmer, born in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve 1959, spent his senior year of high school cutting class at the Hollywood Professional School, doing the “junior Sam Shepard thing” instead, writing poetry, plays and music. In the fall of 1977, at 17, he became the youngest student ever admitted to the drama division of the Juilliard School. “It was a pretty tough school--they kick out half the class after the first year.” Quick success at Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre followed graduation, as well as a stint as Cher’s Young-Beau-of-the-Moment in 1983. He claims sudden fame did not overwhelm him.

“At the time that I got known on the street I was on a world tour doing a documentary on nuclear disarmament. And living pretty much full time in the desert. And I don’t read reviews,” he says, sidestepping the issue of Cher.

In 1984, he got his first film break in “Top Secret,” followed by “Top Gun” in 1986 opposite another up-and-comer, Tom Cruise. Kilmer says, “I told (director) Tony Scott at the meeting, ‘Frankly, I don’t like this.’ I loved what I’d seen of his work, but I just didn’t want to do that movie. He said, ‘Don’t worry, your hair will look great.’ He thought that would make a difference. He was infectious that way.”

But where Cruise went on to great box-office success, Kilmer took a quieter road to Oliver Stone’s “The Doors,” which should have put him over the top in 1991. But he followed it with “Thunderheart,” Michael Apted’s little-seen film about the Oglala Sioux; a small role earlier this year as Christian Slater’s Elvis hallucination in “True Romance”; and as Kim Basinger’s lover in “The Real McCoy.” He has seemed not to have capitalized on his “Doors” high profile purposely. Last year he even returned to the Public Theater in Joanne Akalitis’ dark production of “ ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore"--a testament to his commitment to serious acting, but not exactly “The Doors, Part 2.”

“I have very definitely had a different kind of career than Tom. You never know if a job has commercial success written all over it. I just think life’s too short to worry about that.”

On the set of “Willow” (1988) he met his wife, a British actress already well known from films such as “The Good Father” with Anthony Hopkins. The celebrity status of the five-year marriage has given them some pause: Three years ago the Kilmers heard they were separating. It was never true, he says. (Their household now includes 2-year-old daughter Mercedes.)

“We never had any problems,” Kilmer says. “It was an awful thing somebody did to us. We were on our way to London and by the time we got there, Joanne got a phone call asking, ‘What’s wrong?’ We spent weeks telling everyone everything was OK.

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“In fact, we don’t have a large social life. But something I’m very proud of: We get commented on a lot from our friends about what a great couple we are.”

Next fall, when “Scarlett” airs, both Kilmers will have had the distinction of playing highly coveted, greatly publicized parts. He calls the period this fall when Whalley-Kilmer finally agreed to play Scarlett “Bunuel Week. It was so surreal--it was international news.”

For Val Kilmer, though, playing parts such as Doc Holliday or Jim Morrison comes easily. He and Morrison, for example, shared a passion: poetry. Not unlike cousin Joyce, Val is a scribbler; a few years ago, he self-published a small volume.

“I made it for a Christmas gift, but it’s very expensive to make a book. I foolishly thought maybe it could pay for itself. And then I realized it wasn’t intended for anyone other than the people I made it for.” Leftover copies are in his garage, he says.


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