Tommy Kirk, one of Disney’s major young stars of the 1950s and early ’60s with performances in generational touchstone films such as Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog and Son of Flubber, died Tuesday at his home in Las Vegas. He was 79.
His death was announced on Facebook by friend and fellow child star Paul Petersen.
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“My friend of many decades, Tommy Kirk, was found dead last night,” wrote Petersen, who has long been an advocate for child actors through his organization A Minor Consideration. “Tommy was intensely private. He lived alone in Las Vegas, close to his friend … and Ol Yeller co-star, Bev Washburn … and it was she who called me this morning. Tommy was gay and estranged from what remains of his blood-family. We in A Minor Consideration are Tommy’s family. Without apology. We will take care of this.”
Kirk said in a 1993 interview with Filmfax magazine writer Kevin Minton that he realized he was gay at age 17 or 18 and that his sexual orientation all but destroyed his career. “Disney was a family film studio, and I was supposed to be their young leading man. After they found out I was involved with someone, that was the end of Disney.
“I consider my teenage years as being desperately unhappy,” Kirk added in the interview. “I knew I was gay, but I had no outlet for my feelings. It was very hard to meet people and, at that time, there was no place to go to socialize. It wasn’t until the early ’60s that I began to hear of places where gays congregated. The lifestyle was not recognized, and I was very, very lonely. Oh, I had some brief, very passionate encounters and as a teenager I had some affairs, but they were always stolen, back-alley kind of things. They were desperate and miserable.
“When I was about 17 or 18 years old,” he continued, “I finally admitted to myself that I wasn’t going to change. I didn’t know what the consequences would be, but I had the definite feeling that it was going to wreck my Disney career and maybe my whole acting career. It was all going to come to an end.”
Although he left the Disney youth films behind by the mid-’60s — following starring roles in Swiss Family Robinson (1960), The Absent Minded Professor (1961), Babes in Toyland (1961), Moon Pilot (1962), Bon Voyage! (1962), Savage Sam (an Old Yeller sequel in 1963), The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964) and The Monkey’s Uncle (1965) — Kirk went on to appear in a string of the popular beach party movies of that decade. He played a Martian in the 1964 feature film Pajama Party and also starred in The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966) and It’s a Bikini World (1967).
A couple minor skirmishes with the law over drug possession in the mid-1960s also contributed to his career problems, with a marijuana arrested reportedly leading to his being dropped from 1965’s How to Stuff a Wild Bikini starring Annette Funicello and, in the role intended for Kirk, Dwayne Hickman.
In addition to the beach movies, Kirk appeared in various low-budget sci-fi films that went from drive-in fare to cult classic lists, including 1965’s campy Village of the Giants, opposite Beau Bridges and Ron Howard, and 1968’s Mars Needs Women. He would continue to make sporadic appearances throughout the 1990s and early 2000s in such films as Billy Frankenstein (1998) and The Education of a Vampire (2001).
Born in Lexington, KY, Kirk hadn’t yet reached his second birthday when he and his family moved to Downey, CA, and at age 13 he accompanied his brother, Joe, to an audition of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! at the Pasadena Playhouse. Joe lost the part to a young actor named Bobby Driscoll (who himself would become a Disney star, voicing the title character of Peter Pan, before being let go by the studio. He died in 1968 at age 31 after years of drug abuse).
Although Joe didn’t land the role at the Playhouse, Tommy was cast in a minor part, signed with an agent and began working in television on such series as Gunsmoke and Matinee Theatre.
In 1956, Kirk was cast as Joe Hardy, opposite Tim Considine’s Frank Hardy, in The Mickey Mouse Club serialized adventure The Hardy Boys: The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure.
The popular serial featuring buried treasure, mysterious clues and skeletons, remembered by countless Baby Boomers for its spooky theme song “Gold Doubloons and Pieces of Eight,” appeared in 19 episodes in its first year on The Mickey Mouse Club in 1956 and returned for a second series the following year.
In an obituary written and released by the Disney studio today, Considine said of Kirk: “He was one of the most talented people I ever worked with. Frighteningly talented. A friend of mine who was a casting director told me that when Tommy Kirk came in to audition, he had never seen a kid actor as good as he was, especially because he could instantly cry on cue. He was a great talent and it was privilege to work with him and call him a friend.”
Both Kirk and Considine were named by the studio as Disney Legends in 2006, an honor given to individuals in recognition of their extraordinary contributions to the Walt Disney Company. At the Disney Legends Award ceremony, Kirk said, “I want to be remembered for my Disney work, like Swiss Family Robinson and Old Yeller.” He recalled a childhood encounter with Walt Disney, noting that the famed studio chief was with gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. “He put his arm around me, and he said, ‘This is my good-luck piece here,’ to Hedda Hopper. I never forgot that. That’s the nicest compliment he ever gave me.”
Kirk’s most lasting contribution to Disney — and to his peers in the incipient youth culture of the 1950s — certainly was as the child star of Old Yeller, also featuring Dorothy McGuire and Fess Parker. Set in post-Civil War Texas, the film, based on a popular and acclaimed novel, focused on Kirk’s Travis Coates, a young boy who adopts the title character, a mischievous but ever-loyal stray dog. Like Disney’s Bambi before it, Old Yeller included a heartbreaking scene that would become seared into the psyches of children across the country: When Old Yeller becomes infected with rabies, a sobbing Travis, with bravery and compassion, shoots and kills the dog.
Old Yeller was selected for preservation into the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2019.
In the studio obituary, film historian Leonard Maltin said: “One of the reasons people remember Old Yeller is not just the fate of a beloved dog, but the shattering grief expressed by his owner, so beautifully played by Tommy. I think his talent and range as an actor were taken for granted somewhat. He was really very versatile.”
Also quoted in the studio statement are Mouseketeers Tommy Cole and Bobby Burgess.
“Tommy and I palled around and even double dated as kids,” said Cole. “To me he was a Disney icon.” Added Burgess: “When Tommy was filming Old Yeller, he went to school on the lot with us Mouseketeers. I remember our teacher asked us what language we would like to learn. We all chose Spanish except for Tommy, who wanted to learn German, and indeed he did!”
Kirk by and large abandoned acting in the 1970s, but years later would continue to meet fans at nostalgia conventions. According to Disney, he was interviewed several months ago for an upcoming book on the making of Swiss Family Robinson.
After leaving acting behind, Kirk eventually ran a carpet cleaning business in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley.
In his Facebook post, Petersen, who starred on the 1958-66 family sitcom The Donna Reed Show, writes that his longtime friend was not embittered by his abbreviated show business career, and that he found comfort in his church. “Please know that Tommy Kirk loved you, his fans,” Petersen writes. “You lifted him up when an Industry let him down in 1965.”
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