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Hollywood icon Val Kilmer made a triumphant return to the silver screen in Top Gun: Maverick earlier this summer, where longtime fans saw the actor reprise his beloved antagonistic role alongside Tom Cruise in a way that also touched upon Kilmer’s all-too-real struggle with cancer.
Kilmer, now 62 years old, spent two years between 2015 and 2017 silently contemplating a serious throat cancer diagnosis before publicly contending with questions about his health. The actor, whose filmography makes up most of the hallmark of 1990s’ cinema with roles in the original top gun and Batman Forever as well as tombstone and heat, had helped earn the film industry over $2 billion at the height of his career, CNN reports. But fans and critics alike weren’t sure about the future of his career after Kilmer began detailing how his bout with throat cancer impacted his health, and eventually how it led to him losing the ability to speak.
As he shared in a revealing interview with the New York Times, Kilmer was reluctant to seek medical attention at first. Eventually, Kilmer’s children convinced him to undergo formal treatment for his throat cancer diagnosis, which led to multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, as well as surgery, the teams reports. According to multiple sources — including his 2020 documentary value and his memoir I’m Your Huckleberry — the procedures allowed Kilmer to fully recover from his throat cancer diagnosis and seemingly enter remission.
Unfortunately, however, Kilmer’s procedures ended up requiring the tracheostomy tube as well as the feeding tube, effectively leaving him unable to speak as he once had.
“Now that it’s more difficult to speak, I want to tell my story more than ever,” Kilmer said in his 2020 documentary, valuewhich examines the star’s career and life up until his cancer ordeal and subsequent recovery.
Since then, Kilmer has endeavored to continue working past challenges presented by his health, including his much-anticipated return to Top Gun: Maverick this past May. Screenwriters purposefully interwove Kilmer’s real-life cancer recovery story into the storyline, where “Iceman” communicates with Tom Cruise’s protagonist character by typing — save for a single line of audio, which was recreated from Kilmer’s real voice using AI technology, according to this release published by Northeastern University.
Read on to hear more of Kilmer’s testimony on his cancer recovery, where his health has progressed to currently, and more on his journey to return to acting and creative pursuits.
On confirming his cancer diagnosis:
Kilmer didn’t initially come forward with his plight, and has since selectively shared information about the timeline of his recovery — in fact, first news of Kilmer’s deteriorating health came from a friend and Hollywood peer, Michael Douglas, per reports. It wasn’t until 2017 that Kilmer ended up revealing his previous diagnosis in a roundabout way via a Reddit session.
“[Michael Douglas] was probably trying to help me, [because] press probably asked where I was these days, and I did have a healing of cancer,” Kilmer wrote at the time. “But my tongue is still swollen, [although] healing all the time. Because I don’t sound [like] my normal self yet, people think I may still be under the weather.”
Later the same year, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Kilmer claimed that his throat cancer recovery had “taken its toll” on his health. As noted in materials published by Harvard Health, throat cancer is often first recorded on the vocal cords, before spreading into the back of the throat, including the tongue and tonsils area.
Kilmer added that he’d recently had a procedure done on his trachea that altered his voice and left him routinely breathless. It was later revealed that the process was a tracheotomy, which according to officials at the Mayo Clinic, opens up an air passage in your throat known as a tracheostomy “to help you breathe when the usual route for breathing is somehow blocked or reduced.” It’s unclear whether Kilmer’s healthcare providers will ever close his tracheostomy in the future.
On his first health scare alongside then partner, Cher:
In his memoir, Kilmer revealed an interesting facet of how he ended up learning about his throat cancer — and how Cher played a role in the ordeal.
“One night I suddenly awoke vomiting blood that covered the bed like a scene out of The Godfather. I prayed immediately, then called 911,” he writes in I’m Your Huckleberry. “Then alerted my hostess. Cher stepped in and stepped up.”
Kilmer says the pair managed to laugh as he was being hit to the hospital, where he would eventually learn of his illness.
“I saw her scanning the paramedic, who was Gregory Peck drop-dead handsome. Only in Hollywood, right? Despite the fact that I was covered in blood, I caught her eye and bounced my brows like Groucho Marx. Hubba Hubba,” he writes. “Cher was bashful to be busted but then couldn’t help laughing out loud at the audacity. Here we were, joking about beauty and desire, while I looked like a stuntman from Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and yes, while my life seemed to be in mortal danger. We laughed out loud before they finished with my vitals and shut me up with an oxygen mask.”
On how his recovery left him unable to speak:
Kilmer revealed more about how his procedure forever changed the way he communicates, as well as his ability to get involved in screen roles in the future, in the 2020 biographical documentary, value.
“I obviously am sounding much worse than I feel,” he says in the film, holding a finger over the incision on his throat, which is often obscured by a kerchief or scarf. “I can speak without plugging this hole. You have to make the choice to breathe or to eat… It’s an obstacle that is very present with whoever sees me.”
In an earlier interview that aired on Good Morning America in April 2020, Kilmer confirmed that the procedure was done as part of his recovery and to alleviate the pain he was experiencing at the time.
“I feel a lot better than I sound, but I feel wonderful,” he shared. “I was diagnosed with throat cancer, which healed very quickly. This is a breather to help me because the glands in my throat swelled up as well.”
Later in the same year, in a separate GMA interview that aired in August while discussing a new film project with his daughter, Kilmer added that he contends that the loss of his ability to speak is a personal challenge to overcome.
“It’s just like any other language or dialect,” he said at the time. “You have to figure out a way to communicate that’s no different than any other acting challenge, but it’s just a very unique set of circumstances.”
On faith playing a role in his recovery:
Kilmer didn’t initially wish to seek formal medical treatment for his cancer diagnosis, according to this New York Times profile, published in 2020. His two children — Mercedes, 30, and Jack, 27 — worked hard to motivate their father to turn to medical experts, as Kilmer had planned to fall back on his Christian Science faith to live through his illness.
Kilmer had thought of seeking treatment through what’s known as a practitioner, or a religious advisor, away from his family to pray and hopefully no longer “manifest outwardly what can be originally diagnosed as a malady,” he told the teams. Later, he ended up being persuaded not to proceed down this path, as it would have required being away from his children.
“I just didn’t want to experience their fear, which was profound,” he said. “I would have had to go away, and I just didn’t want to be without them.”
After his procedures and subsequent tracheostomy tube, Kilmer told the teams that he believes his cancer recovery was successful due to spiritual pursuits and that he believed his speaking loss was due to the nature of the medical procedures. “[The tracheostomy tube] it’s from radiation and chemotherapy, it’s not from cancer,” he said.
On how artificial intelligence was in Top Gun: Maverick:
While Kilmer is still grappling with the after-effects of his tracheostomy, his Hollywood return featured in Top Gun: Maverick illustrates how the actor is chasing creative acting pursuits moving forward.
In 2021, a software company known as Sonantic assisted Kilmer in creating a program that recreated his voice, harnessing old audio recordings and AI capabilities available today. In August of that year, Kilmer debuted the program in a one-minute clip explaining why he had chosen to pursue the project in the first place.
“After getting treated, my voice as I knew it was taken away from me. People around me struggle to understand when I’m talking,” he shared in the clip. “But despite all that I still feel I’m the exact same person. Still the same creative soul. A soul that dreams ideas and stories confidently, but now I can express myself again, bring these ideas to you, and show you this part of myself once more. A part that was never truly gone. Just hiding away.”
The Sonantic project is the same audio program used in Top Gun: Maverick, according to Entertainment Weeklyand was featured in the emotional scene where Kilmer audibly utters some dialogue with Cruise viewers learn of new plotlines in the highly anticipated sequel.
And Kilmer will be able to use that same audio program in future projects down the line as well — opening the door for more roles where fans could see the iconic film titan overcome his personal health in the future.
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