Emotions were flying high on the set of “Top Gun: Maverick.”
Val Kilmer was back 36 years after the classic original film was released to make a brief cameo in the new sequel, out May 27, as Tom “Iceman” Kazansky alongside his old onscreen rival Tom Cruise as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell.
In the poignant scene, filmed in front of a small group of crew and family, the former hotshots touchingly reunite in the office of Iceman, who’s now a commander in the US Navy. The affection we see on the stars’ faces, sources say, didn’t take much acting from either man.
“I was on set, I saw it live and it was extraordinary,” Kilmer’s daughter, singer and actor Mercedes Kilmer, 30, told The Post. “It means a lot to my dad as he’s very proud of that film. This is what he loves to do.”
She added of the experience of watching her famous father, now 62, who first played Ice at 26 years old: “It was trippy, and very special for my dad to be on set with all of his friends who made this movie when they were my age.”
Making the day especially moving for the Kilmer family and his co-star was the fact that the actor’s “Maverick” appearance came after his difficult two-year battle with throat cancer, which saw him lose his voice.
Shocked fans of the actor got their first glimpse of his health struggles in the revealing documentary “Val,” which premiered last summer.
They saw a very different Kilmer, who has been cancer free for six years now, yet has endured a treacherous road. He had an emergency tracheotomy, an incision into his windpipe to allow him to breathe, which forced him to use a feeding tube to eat, and caused him to mostly lose the ability to vocalize.
In “Maverick” his sound had to be recreated using archival recordings and sophisticated technologies.
Kilmer’s brave struggles are a world away from those carefree early days when the Hollywood heartthrob’s life was all abs and aviator sunglasses.
Kilmer was born and raised in California, where he would make meticulously detailed short films in the backyard with his brother Wesley.
“They were really quite creative,” Leo Scott, who co-directed “Val” with Ting Poo, told The Post. “It was always there, you can see it in the early footage.”
After Wesley, his best friend, died of an epileptic seizure at age 15, the shattered Kilmer moved to New York to study acting at Juilliard.
He dabbled in Shakespeare onstage, but got his big break in the 1984 film “Top Secret!”. Soon after, he became a marquee name with 1986’s “Top Gun,” which made the world fall in love with Kilmer, Cruise and bespectacled Anthony Edwards as “Goose.”
Ting Poo and Leo Scott, the directors of the hit documentary “Val” told The Post on the original “Top Gun”, there were “no rules.”
“He took a camcorder with him and he filmed his whole experience. I don’t think camcorders were allowed this time around! But it was very hush hush that he was going to be in the sequel, he wouldn’t tell us,” said Poo.
Scott added: “We had access to this archive from his early school art work — he and his brothers at a very young age were making mini movies on film, where his brother Wesley, who passed away, was directing and Val was acting. They were really quite creative, it was always there, you can see it in the early footage. Val got a camcorder before he was even famous.
“He was documenting his process too as an actor — there are so many tapes of him practicing so many roles over and over again, he had this incredible energy and determination. He was practicing Hamlet and saying by the time he was 26/27 he was going to playing Hamlet on stage. He did this for years, people don’t realize that he’s a trained Shakespearean actor.”
Poo added, “He’s a very spiritual person, he has no regrets about anything. He thinks positively about the future.”
Although it’s the enthusiastic role he’s most known for, Kilmer wasn’t originally about doing “Top Gun.”
“I didn’t want the part,” he wrote in his 2020 memoir “I’m Your Huckleberry.” “I didn’t care about the film. The story didn’t interest me. My agent, who also represented Tom Cruise, basically tortured me into at least meeting [director] Tony Scott.”
Kilmer agreed to go, but did his best to blow his chances. At the audition, he “showed up looking the fool. . . . I read the lines indifferently.” Yet after he landed the part, he found that he loved playing Iceman.
And the ladies found that they loved Kilmer.
A bona fide heartthrob, the actor was in high demand romantically.
He has had a string of notable girlfriends including Daryl Hannah, Cindy Crawford and Angelina Jolie. He dated Cher in the early ’80s before he met his future ex-wife.
That was British actress Joannne Whalley, the eventual mother of his children Mercedes and Jack, who he first encountered on the set of the fantasy adventure film “Willow” in 1987. Smitten, the couple wed in 1988.
They worked together in 1989 in “Kill Me Again,” but Whalley filed for divorce citing irreconcilable differences in 1995. Although she sued him for child support for Jack in 2011, they are on good terms today, Mercedes said.
He continued to make major pictures, including playing Jim Morrison in 1991’s “The Doors” and as the Caped Crusader in Joel Schumacher’s controversial “Batman Forever” in 1995, among many smaller titles.
An enthusiast of the craft of acting, he later returned to the stage. It was while Kilmer was donning a white wig as Mark Twain in his touring one-man show, called “Citizen Twain” in 2014, that he discovered a lump in his throat.
After waking up one night in a pool of his own blood, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. The actor wrote in his autobiography that when he received an emergency tracheotomy, he “presumed this was the day of my death.”
A lifelong Christian Scientist, he has spoken about his decision to have chemotherapy despite it going against his religious beliefs.
He told the New York Times Magazine in 2020 that he at first believed he would find a cure by relocating and working with his practitioner, a kind of spiritual adviser, to help pray his fear away so that his body would no longer “manifest outwardly what can be diagnosed as a malady.”
But his kids and loved ones disagreed and pushed him to get treatment. “I just didn’t want to experience their fear, which was profound,” he said.
“I would’ve had to go away, and I just didn’t want to be without them.”
His former girlfriend Cher then came to the rescue. The “If I Could Turn Back Time” singer arranged for her old beau to be treated at the renowned David Geffen School of Medicine, where he underwent chemotherapy and radiation for two months.
Afterwards, he lived at the singer’s guest house in Malibu, writing in his book, “Once Cher works her way inside your head and heart, she never leaves.”
Although Cher supported Kilmer during his cancer battle, she’s not believed to have paid for his treatment, according to sources.
“I can’t speak without plugging this hole [in his throat]. You have to make the choice to breathe or to eat,” he said in the 2021 documentary “Val’” which was produced by Mercedes, alongside his son Jack, 26, a musician and actor who appeared in the 2013 film “Palo Alto. ”
The emergency tracheotomy and subsequent radiation and chemotherapy left the actor with a feeding tube and speaking difficulties.
Mercedes said his speech has improved since then.
“He’s doing really well,” she said. “He can speak, but it’s really raspy.”
On the mend, Kilmer was desperate to appear in the long-awaited “Maverick.”
“It didn’t matter that the producers didn’t contact me,” he wrote. “As the Temptations sang in the heyday of Motown soul, ‘ain’t too proud to beg.’”
Ali Alborzi, Kilmer’s long-time business partner, applauded his gumption.
“Val and Tom have been friends for 36 years, to make another ‘Top Gun’ movie that was so important to both of them,” he told The Post. “Without Val in it, would seem very incorrect.”
Kilmer’s role secured, the production team and London-based AI firm Sonantic then recreated his voice through AI so he could act once again.
“They were able to dub him with his own voice, which is amazing,” said Mercedes. “It’s such a technical feat, being able to engineer his voice that way, that it’s an extension of the technical feat of the film.”
As thrilling as his comeback is, Kilmer did not make it to any “Top Gun: Maverick” premieres — in San Diego on May 4, at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday night, or at the royal performance in London, attended by Prince William and Kate Middleton on Thursday night. Wanting to avoid crowds due to the pandemic, he stayed at home in the Hollywood Hills, Mercedes confirmed.
Jack and Mercedes walked the red carpet at Cannes on France’s Côte d’Azur in their dad’s place.
Variety said that the French premiere, “an overwhelming response came when Val Kilmer, who starred as Cruise’s nemesis Iceman in the original film, appeared in a scene with Cruise. The screening ended with a five-minute standing ovation from the crowd.”
Kilmer’s still got big plans for his career. He has continued working and is busy with his artistic pursuits tied into his gallery/creative incubator HelMel Studios in Los Angeles, as well as continuing to act. In 2020 he co-starred with Mercedes in the thriller “Paydirt”.
“I never underestimate my dad. He’s a very resilient person, nothing surprises me,” she said.
“Now that he has his voice [thanks to technology] ,he can absolutely take on more projects.
“Some people are like ‘Oh, I have a cold, I’m not going to act today, but he really doesn’t let anything stop him,'” she said.
“I wish he would take a break!”