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How Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando's Bitter Feud Delayed an Entire Movie

The "difficult" actors clashed on the set of The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Val Kilmer was one of the biggest movie stars of the '80s and '90s, rising to fame on the wings of his charisma and good looks. But by the early 2000s, his career had stalled. A lot of that seemingly came down to his reputation for being difficult to work with—and no movie got the rumor mill working overtime quite like 1996's infamous H.G. Wells adaptation The Island of Dr. Moreau, which lost a director early in production and was delayed due to the diva-like behavior of its co-stars, Kilmer and Marlon Brando. Read on to find out more about the actors' feud and how it ground production to a halt.

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Both Kilmer and Brando had reputations for causing trouble on set.

Marlon Brando in 1996

Even before word got out about trouble during the production of The Island of Dr. Moreau, Kilmer was notorious for bad on-set behavior. As noted by Entertainment Weekly in 1996, shortly after it had been confirmed that Kilmer would not return to the role of Bruce Wayne for the sequel to Batman Forever, "[J]ust 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." Batman Forever director Joel Schumacher even called the star "childish and impossible," per the magazine.

Brando, too, had a reputation for being difficult. Far past his glory days as the Oscar-winning star of On the Waterfront and The Godfather, the acting legend had become more known for his bizarre behavior both on and off-set than his performances. The actor was slammed for making anti-semitic comments on CNN's Larry King Live in 1996 and had made headlines for clashing with directors including Francis Ford Coppola (just one of several feuds the actor engaged in on the set of Apocalypse Now).

Putting these two notoriously difficult personalities into the same movie seemed like a recipe ripe for disaster, especially considering The Island of Dr. Moreau was in rough shape from the start.

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The movie was troubled from the start.

Val Kilmer in The Island of Dr. Moreau
New Line Cinema

With a budget of $40 million, two marquee stars, and time-tested source material, The Island of Dr. Moreau seemed poised for success, but from the first days of shooting, the production was a mess.

According to EW, original director, Richard Stanley, who had been developing the project for four years (and even, in his own telling, engaged the services of a warlock to perform a ritual to ensure Brando would sign on), agreed at the last moment to let Kilmer swap roles in order to take a smaller part. Regardless of his request being honored, the actor reportedly started causing problems as soon as filming began, insisting on odd wardrobe choices, saying lines written for other characters, and showing up late to the set on the second day.

The actor who replaced Kilmer in his original part, Rob Morrow, wound up quitting the film a few days into production (the character was recast with David Thewlis)—and Stanley didn't fare any better. He made it through only three days of filming before the studio, unimpressed with the footage that had been shot, fired him, bringing in veteran director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) on short notice.

(For his part, Stanley believes Kilmer intentionally sabotaged him: "He would refuse to rehearse," he told EW. "He's clever, because then we'd just shoot it, and the moment you shoot it, its rushes, and it goes back to the company.")

Frankenheimer too clashed with Kilmer—who also got no respect from Brando. Per EW, "One evening, Kilmer turned to the director and asked, "You know what I think?" To which Frankenheimer responded, "I don't give a [expletive]. Get off my set."

Brando, meanwhile, insisted his trailer be moved far away from Kilmer's and bad-mouthed the actor to his face, telling him, according to an anonymous member of the production team, "Your problem is, you confuse your talent with the size of your paycheck."

According to that same anonymous crew member, the production lost 12 days, during which no filming at all took place—due to the actors' inability to get along.

Kilmer and Brando each were under strain and exhibited bizarre behavior on set.

Val Kilmer in 1997
Rebecca Naden – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

Brando and Kilmer's on-set antics went much further than that, however. Brando insisted on bizarre alterations to his character, playing the role while caked in white face paint and, inexplicably, filming one scene with a metal bucket perched atop his head. He also reportedly didn't know his lines, and had to be fed them through an earpiece—with humorous results, when it accidentally picked up the signal from nearby police radios.

Kilmer fought mercilessly with Frankenheimer (even videotaping their heated arguments and later sharing some clips of them in the 2021 documentary Val) and was even reported to have burned a member of the crew with a cigarette (an act he claimed was accidental).

Both actors were dealing with stress in their personal lives at the time that could have contributed to their behavior. Kilmer was served with divorce papers while on set in the Virgin Islands, while Brando was dealing with the death of his daughter Cheyenne, who died by suicide in April 1995, five years after her half-brother Christian, Brando's son, pleaded guilty to fatally shooting her boyfriend.

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The movie was a massive flop.

Val Kilmer in 2019
Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

Getting fired from The Island of Dr. Moreau proved to be a death knell for the original director—Stanley didn't reemerge until 25 years later, when he released the documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau, a chronicle of his years of work on the tortured production.

Kilmer, who speaks with a voice box after battling throat cancer, also shared his side of the story decades later in his autobiographical documentary film. To hear him tell it, his obstinate behavior was all about giving The Island of Dr. Moreau his creative all.

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Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller is a pop culture writer living in New York. Read more
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