Legendary actor Val Kilmer details remembrances of his remarkable career in I'm Your Huckleberry: A Memoir (Simon & Schuster). He shares the chapter "Doc Hollidays," about the making of the 1993 western Tombstone — in which he portrays the tuberculosis-plagued gunslinger Doc Holliday — with C&I readers.
I’m proud of the work I did on Billy the Kid, a made-for-TV Western written by Gore Vidal, the towering member of the literati. In thinking about the role, I may have had in mind Brando’s Kid Rio, the hero of the only movie Marlon ever directed, One Eyed Jacks. That film was made when I was an infant. When I was an adult and Brando’s friend, he told me that at some point every film actor must make a Western. When I asked him why, he answered with his famous half smile and the words, “You know damn well why.”
I presume the why has to do with basic Americanism. One way or the other, Americans have to deal with the West and its glorious, sordid, and sadistic past. Marlon knew that the West represents both our territorial salvation and our mortal sin, our gain and our greed. We fought lawlessness to create an even more lawless law, one that excused and perpetuated genocide. Even today, this gun-obsessed nation that we love remains enmired in a dilemma centered on pistols and rifles with romantic ties to our murderous past. We love Westerns. We learn everything from Westerns and yet learn nothing from them.
We continue killing ourselves in unconscionable ways. The archetype of the gunslinger, played with a naturalism that only Brando could invoke, is ever present. I could never give up the chance to play such a character. That’s why when I had the chance to play Doc Holliday, I grabbed it.
I’ve entitled this tome I’m Your Huckleberry for many reasons. I like the unintentional echo of Huckleberry Finn, which is my favorite novel and features my favorite character. I also realize that the line that I, playing the diseased Doc Holliday, articulated has become iconic. I speak it before shooting to death the fearsome Johnny Ringo, played by Michael Biehn. By the way, despite some fans’ contention that in the 1800s the handles of caskets were called huckles and thus the word huckle bearer was a term for pall bearer, I do not say, “I’m your huckle bearer.” I say, “I’m your huckleberry,” connotating, “I’m your man. You’ve met your match.”
In trying to understand the character of Doc Holliday, it’s important to remember he’s a fallen aristocrat, frustrated by his inability to express his authentic self. His greatest retribution for this loss was his caustic wit. His tongue is more lethal than his pistol. Throughout the drama, he’s dying of both drink and tuberculosis. In playing him, I thought of what my dear friend the great screenplay writer Robert Towne had taught me: all insightful dialogue comes out of situations, not predeveloped thought. In that regard, I saw Doc’s situation as dire. I also saw his action as defiance in the face of death. I loved him.
My castmates were wonderful—Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp, and Sam Elliott and Bill Paxton as his brothers—and the experience was profound. I had read only half of Kevin Jarre’s brilliant screenplay before I made up my mind to accept the role. That’s happened only two other times in my career (with Batman and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). When I take on a part, I usually read the script many times before reciting a word out loud.
I was especially attuned to the rhythms of Doc’s speech, so much so that I called Kevin with the most specific of questions. I said, “There’s a comma on page thirty-two where I don’t think Doc needs to pause. Wouldn’t it be more effective if he simply drew out the line?” “When you get more into the drawl,” said Kevin, “you’ll find that the pause is right.” “Are you certain?”
“I am,” said Kevin. He was. And he was in no mood to argue about a comma. The fact that Kevin proved to be right—the comma was necessary to that musicality—shows that sometimes the writer hears his creation with greater acuity than the actor. Sometimes.
Rehearsals were hilarious. There were five or six actors who had played leads in blockbusters. Many times very small parts seemed to become what the whole film was about.
Fortunately, my wife and daughter were on set. Our little girl glowed; she was radiant and adorable and won the hearts of the entire crew. Everyone wanted to play with Mercedes. All went well until the first day of shooting. Moments of mystical wonderment morphed into a filmmaking fiasco.
Kurt Russell and I were on horses. Horses are always tricky. They want to move. They do move. Even super-skilled riders like me and Kurt had to listen to the whims of our steeds, and this day they were trying to tell us something. Writer Kevin Jarre was directing. Before Kevin said, “Action,” I looked up and saw a bald eagle flying straight to the heavens holding a rattlesnake in his talons. In midflight, another magnificent bald eagle snatched the slithering snake. Both eagles flew higher and higher, passing the rattler back and forth in a rare mating dance. I was stunned. I was moved. It was a moment of glory—like a total eclipse of the sun. It had origins in the folklore of Native Americans. In the green, white, and red flag of Mexico an eagle sitting upon a prickly pear has a rattlesnake ensnared in its talons. The eagle is strength, the sacred snake is knowledge, the pear is life itself. The symbolism of what I had been blessed to witness was overwhelming.
And then Kevin Jarre shouted, “Action!” The problem was, there was no shot. Kevin had positioned the camera at an untenable angle. It seemed to me that Kevin, great writer though he was, didn’t know much about directing. Kurt looked me straight in the eye and said, “Val, we’re in trouble.” I had to say something. I did, as gently as possible, but there was no way my remarks didn’t reveal Kevin’s ineptitude. He didn’t last long. Blockbuster director George Cosmatos was brought in. Dozens of cast and crew members were canned. It was an unholy mess. I teamed up with Kurt to edit long sections of the script, because the studio couldn’t give us any more time or money and we were already a month into shooting, which we now had to make up for. It’s amazing the film turned out as well as it did.
I cherish the experience of working with Kurt, whom I love like a brother. When the Academy widens their awards to include something like the lifetime achievement award for Best, Most Unique, Lovely Person for Decades in a Row, if Kurt isn’t the first recipient, I’ll eat my Doc Holliday hat. The film has a cult following, as does my beloved Doc. And though I ducked under the radar of major Hollywood nods of approval, I got a tip of the hat from the golden prince of the West himself, Mr. Bob Dylan.
I’d known Bob since a mutual friend introduced us, right after The Doors. I ran into him in London when he was hanging with Ronnie Wood, a hell of a talent and free spirit I’ve known and loved forever. When Bob saw me, he turned and, like a laser printer, spat out the funniest line I had ever heard about The Doors:
“Hey . . . I hear you did that thing about that guy . . .”
And I said, “Yes, I am now fiddling with your world as well,” referring to the many offers I had to cut my own record after singing every song in the film live.
Bob shot back as soon as I said fiddle—and you have to imagine his completely unique voice and delivery—“What, oh you playing the fiddle now, is that what you said?” He glanced like an impish genius child to Ronnie for rock icon reinforcement.
“No, no,” I replied. “I mean I am messing around with music now.
Might make a record.”
Bob smiled. “’Cause you know fiddling . . . that’s a tough road to hoe, man. Fiddling. Lots of competition.”
Bob is absolutely driven. A hurricane of intense, quiet energy. If you want to know who he is at the moment, listen to how he interprets his songs at a concert today, and you’ll see his soul.
Well, years later, I was in New York with my wife and little angel Mercedes and heard Bob was in town, so I called him. For some reason we were being put up by Warner Bros. at the swanky Pierre on Fifth. Not our style at all. Bob was across town in a hip, discreet hotel when he picked up. Hard to describe the thrill of hearing his voice and literally feeling his rhythm.
“Hey, man, that Doc Holliday . . .”
I couldn’t believe it. Then . . . then he tried to be me as Doc. “Why, Johnny Ringo, you look like someone just walked over your grave.” And then he giggled. I don’t know if there’s footage of his giggle but there’s plenty of him smirk-laughing, and it’s worth the price of admission.
I responded, “Yeah, it was a lot of fun. The writer laid it all out there for me. But thank you. What brings you to New York, Bob?”
“I’m recording an Elvis song for a charity thing with Eric Clapton and Sheryl Crow.”
“Have you picked a song yet?”
“A couple. You want to come by, Val?” “Love to.”
“You’re a daisy if you do!” Bob chirped back. “What are you doing right now?”
“Nothing, doing nothing.” More glorious laughter.
“You’re welcome to come here, Bob. We’re at the Pierre. Under the name of . . .”
“Doc Holliday. Wyatt, you’re an oak. I’m your huckleberry.”
I hung up blushing and whispered to my wife, “I’m not sure this isn’t a dream, but I think Bob Dylan is on his way here.”
Joanne is extremely hard to impress. She was impressed. She said, “That’s something. How?”
“He loves Doc Holliday.”
In what felt like five minutes, the doorbell rang, and Bob was on the other side in a pin-striped Western jacket. He whispered, “Ain’t you gonna say nothin’ from that movie?”
“Sure, right after you sing me ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ ” Why did I say that?!
Maybe I was nervous. Maybe I was starstruck.
Or maybe I just wanted him to think I was cool.
Anyway, Bob, I haven’t given up on the dream of a retake. Call me.
From I'M YOUR HUCKLEBERRY: A MEMOIR by Val Kilmer. Copyright © 2020 by Val Kilmer. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. I'm Your Huckleberry: A Memoir is available for purchase online and at major booksellers.
Top photograph by Andrew Macpherson. Center photograph by Hollywood Pictures.