The arrest was already five-day-old news when the fax arrived in the mail rooms of entertainment executives across L.A. The headline FBI DETAINS SUSPECT IN UNABOMBER HUNT offered no forward spin. But those who received the transmission, sent by a high-powered friend, were in on the joke: In place of the photograph of a glowering Theodore Kaczynski was the smiling, suntanned, sunglasses-wearing Val Kilmer.
When it was announced last February that Kilmer, 36, would not return as the Caped Crusader in Batman and Robin, the forthcoming fourth installment of Hollywood's billion-dollar-plus movie franchise, the utter lack of public distress on the part of Warner Bros. was a sure sign that something had gone amiss for Kilmer. Since first coming to attention in the comedy Top Secret! (1984), the actor had solidified his reputation as a versatile leading man playing parts like Jim Morrison in The Doors (1991) and Doc Holliday in Tombstone (1993). Then, last summer, he had proved his commercial viability in the $184 million-grossing Batman Forever, spinning that success into four other projects: the cop thriller Heat, this August's The Island of Dr. Moreau, this fall's turn-of-the-century African adventure The Ghost and the Darkness with Michael Douglas, and a now-filming remake of the 1960s television series The Saint with Elisabeth Shue.
But just as Kilmer's $6 million-per-picture paycheck has come to reflect his clout, his reputation for being difficult has soared. His prolific schedule notwithstanding, many in Hollywood are loath to work with him, no matter how big the box office payback.
It's no special feat to be voted Mr. Unpopularity in an industry that seems to create a new contender every month, but it's virtually unheard-of for the griping to become public. Nonetheless, here are the testimonials from some of Kilmer's recent colleagues: As Richard Stanley, who directed Kilmer for three days in The Island of Dr. Moreau before being fired, recalls, ''Val would arrive, and an argument would happen.'' Says John Frankenheimer, who replaced Stanley: ''I don't like Val Kilmer, I don't like his work ethic, and I don't want to be associated with him ever again.'' And Batman Forever director Joel Schumacher calls his onetime star ''childish and impossible.''
Kilmer, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has had a tumultuous year: Last July, he separated from his wife of seven years, actress Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, with whom he has two children, Mercedes, 4, and Jack, 1 (he's since taken up with Cindy Crawford), and has been working nonstop in locations as varied as Australia, South Africa, and Russia. But even that stress, say those who know him, cannot excuse incidents like the time he burned a cameraman with a cigarette while filming Moreau. Some suggest that Kilmer's behavior hasn't gotten worse; it's just that more people are paying attention.
Kilmer's brother, Mark, 37, thinks Kilmer's troubles are unsurprising. ''We all have grandiose, narcissistic tendencies,'' says Mark, a doctoral student of psychology who has not spoken to his brother since their father's funeral in 1993. ''If there are people helping those tendencies along, it's hard to resist.''