For a few years beginning in the late 1950s, Walt Disney’s busiest actor was a young man named Tommy Kirk, a clean-cut Kentucky native who came to personify the studio’s brand of wholesome family entertainment.
Frequently starring opposite Fred MacMurray or Annette Funicello, he befriended a scrappy dog on the Texas frontier in “Old Yeller” (1957), transformed into a sheepdog after trying on a cursed ring in “The Shaggy Dog” (1959), explored a remote island in “Swiss Family Robinson” (1960) and experimented with mind-reading while playing a teenage genius in “The Misadventures of Merlin Jones” (1964).
His movies were so popular that, according to Kirk, Disney once introduced him to Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper by saying, “This is my good-luck piece here.” Some three decades later, the comment still resonated. “I never forgot that,” Kirk told The Orlando Sentinel in 1991. “That’s the nicest compliment he ever paid me.”
The relationship between the studio mogul and bankable young actor abruptly ended in 1964, when Disney fired Kirk after a run of 11 movies in eight years. He was largely adored by critics and audiences, but he was also gay, at a time when same-sex relationships were illegal across most of the country.
“When I was about 17 or 18 years old, I finally admitted to myself that I wasn’t going to change,” he said in a 1993 interview with Filmfax magazine. “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. Eventually, I became involved with somebody and I was fired.”
Kirk went on to star in beach-party films and low-budget horror movies before retiring from acting, working as a waiter, chauffeur and head of his own carpet-cleaning company. He was 79 and had been in poor health when he was found dead Sept. 28 at his home in Las Vegas, said his friend and fellow actor Paul Petersen. A spokesperson for the medical examiner’s office in Clark County, Nevada, declined to provide additional details.
In an article for “The Queer Encyclopedia of Film and Television,” film scholar Richard C. Bartone described Kirk as “an object lesson in the dangers of not concealing one’s gayness in the early 1960s.” The circumstances of his firing were not publicized at the time, but his ouster — coupled with his arrest later that year for marijuana possession at a Hollywood party — effectively ended his film career, sending him on a “downward spiral of B movies,” as he put it.
By then, however, he had acquired the respect of co-stars such as Tim Considine, who called him “a monster talent.” Kirk had been discovered at age 12, appearing in a Pasadena Playhouse production of the Eugene O’Neill comedy “Ah, Wilderness!” opposite Will Rogers Jr. He soon made his Disney debut, starring with Considine in a Hardy Boys adventure serial that aired in 1956 on “The Mickey Mouse Club.”
The next year he starred as young Travis Coates in “Old Yeller,” based on Fred Gipson’s children’s novel about a boy and his beloved dog, a stray with a powerful bark and drab yellow coat. The movie was “sentimental, yes,” wrote New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther, “but also sturdy as a hickory stick.” Its devastating ending saw Old Yeller get “hydrophobia,” or rabies, forcing the family to put him down.
“He was my dog,” Kirk says, taking a rifle from his mother (Dorothy McGuire). “I’ll do it.”
Kirk later reprised the role in a sequel, “Savage Sam” (1963). He also starred in four comedies with MacMurray, including “The Absent-Minded Professor” (1961) and its sequel, “Son of Flubber” (1963), and appeared with Funicello — then the studio’s most popular young leading lady — in the nursery-rhyme musical “Babes in Toyland” (1961).
In a 1994 interview with Frontiers, an LGBT magazine, Kirk said that he “got involved with a boy” in the early 1960s, and that “the boy’s mother found out and went to see Walt at the studio,” prompting his firing. He was brought back to shoot “The Monkey’s Uncle” (1965), a sequel to “The Misadventures of Merlin Jones,” leading to an awkward six-week production. “It was a terrible feeling,” he recalled. “I was very uncomfortable, knowing that they were watching me closely.”
Away from Disney, Kirk reunited with Funicello for the beach movie “Pajama Party” (1964) and starred in B movies including “Village of the Giants” (1965), “The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini” (1966) and “It’s Alive!” (1969), which he described as “a monster movie so cheap that the monster wore a scuba suit and had ping-pong balls for eyes.”
He wound up broke, and said he struggled with a drug addiction before turning his life around and starting his own business. “No bitterness, no regrets,” he told the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader in 1990. At times he also appeared at movie and signature conventions, signing autographs and sharing stories for fans who occasionally recognized him on the street. “Once I was walking down Wilshire Boulevard and there were these two girls,” he said. “I heard one say to the other, ‘He looks like somebody from the ’50s.’ “
By most accounts, he was born Thomas Harvey Kirk — some sources say his middle name was Lee — in Louisville on Dec. 10, 1941. His mother was a stenographer, and his father worked for the highway department before entering the aerospace industry during World War II, causing the family to move to Southern California.
Growing up under strict Baptist parents, Kirk said his teenage years were “desperately unhappy” as he came to terms with his sexuality. “I knew I was gay, but I had no outlet for my feelings,” he told Filmfax. “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.”
He was honored with a Disney Legend Award in 2006, alongside entertainers including Elton John.
His friend Petersen, a former Mouseketeer who founded the organization A Minor Consideration to support child actors, said that Kirk was intensely private, and became estranged from his family after coming out as gay. He never married or had children.
“Tommy does have a family, at least what we consider a family, with the former kid stars,” Petersen said. “I must stress this: Tommy was not bitter about his treatment by the industry. He understood that he lived an alternative lifestyle. He tried not to hurt anyone, and he was extremely generous and kind with his fans.
“Disney was particularly aggressive about image, whether it was modest swimming suits for Annette or the sexual preference of his employees, but that was just the way it was … You’ve got to not confuse his personal predilections with the truth of what happens to young performers. When Hollywood is done with you, when you get too old or you’re no longer a child, that’s it. This is the way of life: Hollywood eats its children.”