When Val Kilmer Played Jim Morrison In The Doors, His On-Set Behavior Forced Him To Go Into Therapy

From drastic weight loss to insane efforts to stay in character, some actors go to great lengths to prepare for a role. But sometimes, a star’s dedication to their art can go too far. And for Val Kilmer, his efforts to portray one of music’s wildest singers almost cost him his sanity.

By any standards, Val Kilmer is an actor of great talents. Since debuting in 1984’s Top Secret!, the star has played iconic characters such as Batman and Elvis, and starred in classics like 1995’s Heat. But while his acting skills are widely praised, Kilmer is probably best known for one thing. And that’s being difficult to work with.

Sadly, reports of Kilmer being demanding have often overshadowed the star’s storied career. For example, director Joel Schumacher – speaking to Entertainment Weekly – branded his leading man “childish and impossible.” This was in 1996, after Kilmer walked away from the Batman franchise a year earlier. Meanwhile, an off-screen argument with Tom Sizemore while filming 2000’s Red Planet reportedly even turned violent.

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Despite Kilmer’s allegedly prickly personality, however, he remains one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed performers. At the age of just 17, the actor broke ground by becoming the prestigious Julliard School’s youngest enrolee. Moreover, his talent has earned praise from the likes of Robert De Niro and directors Michael Mann and Irwin Winkler.

Perhaps the most extreme example of Kilmer’s commitment to his craft happened on the set of 1991’s The Doors. A biopic about legendary rock singer Jim Morrison, the film would help cement Kilmer’s celebrity status. However, it almost broke the actor in the process.

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Though not a fan of the singer by the actor’s own admission, nevertheless, Kilmer knew he wanted the part. In preparation for his audition, the star hired professional videographers to create an eight-minute demo reel with him as Morrison. And despite some initial hesitation from director Oliver Stone, the gamble eventually paid off and Kilmer got the part.

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Even though filming was still a year away, Kilmer started obsessively preparing for the role. Besides learning 50 of Morrison’s songs off by heart, the actor began speaking, dressing and moving like the iconic singer. “I was working hard getting my mannerisms down and trying to get that same edge the Lizard King had,” the star told fans on Reddit in 2017.

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In addition, the actor spent over 100 hours with former Doors producer Paul Rothchild to learn more about the singer. And this time together resulted in Kilmer gaining an eerie understanding of Morrison’s character. “[He] knows Jim Morrison better than Jim ever knew himself,” Rothchild admitted to The Washington Post in 1991.

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Undoubtedly though, no one knew Morrison like his fellow bandmates. Yet according to Rothchild, even they couldn’t tell the actor’s impersonation from the real thing. “Early on, I’d bring them into a recording studio and randomly switched Val and Jim,” the producer said. “And they guessed wrong 80 percent of the time.”

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As the movie’s 12-week filming period began, the production team celebrated with a camp fire on a Malibu beach. Akin to the wild parties that defined the ’60’s counterculture, the ceremony aimed to get cast and crew into Morrison’s mindset. For Kilmer at least, it was a sign of the craziness to come.

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However, as the shoot began, signs of Kilmer’s obsession began to leak out on the set. For example, a memo sent early on in production urged everyone to leave the star alone between takes. Moreover, when cast and crew were allowed to talk to Kilmer, they were allegedly asked to call him “Jim.”

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Speaking to The Washington Post, Rothchild argued that there was method in Kilmer’s madness. “He needed that space and he didn’t need to be besieged by the people on set,” he noted. However, the actor himself admitted the memo was a “screw-up” and written without this knowledge. “I was wondering why [everyone was] so quiet,” he told the newspaper in 1991.

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Perhaps the person who experienced the harshest side of Kilmer’s character was Meg Ryan. She had been cast as Morrison’s girlfriend Pamela Courson in the movie. In real life, Morrison and Courson had a rocky relationship, and the actors didn’t hold back while on set. “I’m provoking, she’s getting hammered,” Kilmer revealed during the film’s press tour. “As much as it hurt to do it, it hurts to be [on the receiving end].”

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But it wasn’t just Ryan who witnessed the star’s darker side. In 2017, actress Caitlin O’Heaney revealed to Buzzfeed that the star turned violent when they auditioned together prior to filming. Kilmer’s behavior was reportedly so intense that O’Heaney actually made a complaint against him to the LAPD.

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Of course, Kilmer’s scenes with Ryan took their toll. But the hardest moment for the actor to film was a live performance of The Doors’ famed song “The End.” Due to Stone’s thirst for perfection, Kilmer performed the 11-minute epic a whopping 24 times. Describing his resulting fatigue to Entertainment Weekly in 1991, the star joked, “I felt like it was the end.”

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By the end of production, Kilmer was a shadow of his former self. And the actor’s fixation on getting Morrison right resulted in him seeking therapy just to become his himself again. “I didn’t get seduced into [Morrison’s] style of living,” the star admitted during promotion for the movie. “But I had to and needed, for the role, to be as disciplined as he was.”

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The Doors finally opened in theaters on March 1, 1991. However, it did little to impress the band’s fans – or even its former members for that matter. “The film portrays Jim as a violent, drunken fool,” Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek told the L.A. Times after the movie’s release. “I thought, ‘Geez, who was that jerk?’”

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Moreover, the film divided critics, with many arguing that it said nothing new about Morrison or his band. But while they may have disagreed on the movie’s story, many reviewers were unanimous in their praise of Kilmer. Indeed, Gene Siskel called the star’s take on the singer “superbly represented.” In fact, Kilmer would receive a Chicago Film Critics Association Award nomination for his recreation of the Lizard King.

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It’s been 27 years since The Doors, and Kilmer has come a long way from Morrison. Besides playing iconic characters such as Batman, the actor has continued to give acclaimed performances in the likes of 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. And – following a brief struggle against cancer – he’s set to reprise the role of Iceman in a sequel to 1986’s beloved Top Gun.

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Nevertheless, Morrison remains the star’s standout role. And his uncanny performance is still fooling film fans to this day. “It still boggles me… Seeing people with a tattoo of me playing him and not knowing it isn’t Jim,” Kilmer chuckled on Reddit. But surely that was a one-time occurrence? “Happens more than you think,” the actor wryly added.

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