TOMMY KIRK (1941 – 2021)
Tommy was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1941. His interest in acting was ignited at the age of thirteen when he was cast in a minor role in ‘Ah, Wilderness’ at the Pasadena Playhouse in California, a couple of years after his family had moved there. Before long he was signed to a long-term contract by Walt Disney. In 1955 he became a member of TV’s Mickey Mouse Club and selected to star opposite another newcomer, Tim Considine, in two ‘Hardy Boys’ serials. A string of successful Disney feature films followed, among them Old Yeller (1957), The Shaggy Dog (1959), Swiss Family Robinson (1960) and The Absent-Minded Professor (1961). When The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, released in 1964, brought in $4 million in rentals, Tommy and his co-star Annette Funicello, (two favourite money-makers for the studio), were brought back for the sequel The Monkey’s Uncle (1965).
Tommy as Travis Coates in Old Yeller (1957)
Tommy was riding the crest of a wave of popularity at Disney, especially after he played the lead role of Travis Coates in Old Yeller, an adventure tale about a boy and his heroic dog. The film was a box-office success and the boy became Walt Disney’s first choice whenever the studio needed someone to play an all-American teenager. Kevin ‘Moochie’ Corcoran was picked to play his younger brother, both in Old Yeller and in the 1963 sequel Savage Sam. When Swiss Family Robinson made it to the silver screen, Kirk played the middle son of the Robinson family, flanked by James MacArthur as his older sibling and Corcoran once again filling the role of his younger, mischievous baby brother.
‘Moochie’ Corcoran & Tommy in Old Yeller
While Tommy’s big screen career was flying along at a rate of knots, he was also in demand on television, the fledgling medium that was just beginning to take off in America and around the world. Throughout ’56 and ’57 he worked steadily in TV in episodes of Lux Video Theatre, Frontier, Big Town, Crossroads, Letter to Loretta, Matinee Theatre and the top-rated western series Gunsmoke. Tommy Kirk was at the peak of his considerable popularity when it all suddenly came tumbling down.
Publicity shot – Annette & Tommy Kirk
‘Even more than MGM, Disney [in the early sixties] was the most conservative studio in town’, he remembered… They were growing aware. They weren’t stupid. They could add two and two together, and I think they were beginning to suspect my homosexuality. I noticed people in certain quarters were getting less and less friendly. In 1963, Disney didn’t renew my option and let me go. In the 1960s, all my social life was underground gay bars. It was my own life. I kept it separate from work, where I went on publicity dates with Annette Funicello or Roberta Shore. Eventually, I became involved with somebody [a male] and I was fired. Disney was a family film studio and I was supposed to be their young, leading man. After they found out I was involved with some guy that was the end of Disney.’ The fact that Tommy was by then twenty-one years old and the ‘guy’ he was involved with was only fifteen (and under-age), resulted in the boy’s mother confronting Kirk at the studio in Walt Disney’s presence. Tommy was extremely fortunate to avoid ‘sodomy charges against a minor’ being pursued against him.
‘In December 1964, I signed a contract for The Sons of Katie Elder with John Wayne, but a week before shooting I went to a Hollywood party that the vice squad busted for marijuana. I was hand-cuffed and photos of me got in the papers, with headlines like, ‘Ex-Disney Child Star Arrested for Pot!’ So, Wayne and the producers fired me… I did some of the worst movies ever made and I got professionally involved with a manager who said it didn’t matter what you did as long as you kept working. I wound up completely broke. I spent all my money on drugs to get out of the emotional pain I was in. I had no self-discipline or self-control and I almost died of a drug overdose a couple of times…Finally, I said to myself, ‘to hell with the whole thing, to hell with show business. I’m gonna make a new life for myself’, and I got off drugs, completely kicked all that stuff.’
Fred MacMurray & Jane Wyman in Bon Voyage! (1962)
Prior to his dismissal from Disney, he appeared in Bon Voyage! (1962), playing the son of Fred MacMurray and Jane Wyman. ‘I thought Jane Wyman was a hard, cold woman’, Tommy recalled, ‘and I got to hate her by the time I was though with Bon Voyage! Of course, she didn’t like me either, so I guess it came natural. I think she had some suspicion that I was gay and all I can say is that, if she didn’t like me for that, she doesn’t like a lot of people… She was very mean to me. She went out of her way to be shitty… but she was a total bitch and I think she was homophobic.’
On the other hand, Tommy had a lot of time for Fred MacMurray. ‘I really liked him very much but the feeling wasn’t mutual. That hurt me a lot and for a long time I hated him. It’s hard not to hate somebody who doesn’t like you. I was looking for a father figure and I pushed him too hard. He resented it and I guess I was pretty repellent to him, so we didn’t get along. We had a couple of ‘blow-ups’ on set… He was a nice person, but I was just too demanding. I came on too strong because I desperately wanted to be his friend.’
Tommy passed away peacefully at his home in Las Vegas, California in September 2021, at the age of seventy-nine. His friend and former fellow Disney actor Paul Petersen, announced his death on Facebook, noting that Kirk’s family had disowned him. Back in 2006, he had been inducted as a ‘Disney Legend’ and was retired on a ‘nice pension’. After his screen career ended he started a carpet-cleaning business and was content to spend his later years out of the public eye, except for attendances at occasional Disney fan conventions. No cause of death was released.