So sad to read that Tommy Kirk, the winsome star of Disney's phenomenally popular — and deeply sad — family film Old Yeller (1957), has died.
He was 79.
ExtraTV reports the retired actor was found dead at home in Las Vegas yesterday, September 28, by a friend. There is no cause yet, but no reason to suspect foul play.
Tommy was born on December 10, 1941, in Louisville, Kentucky, but only lived there as an infant. His family relocated to the West Coast, where in his boyhood he auditioned for a role in a Pasadena Playhouse production, getting it because he was the only boy who read for it! That gig — he has said it was a mere five lines — came to the attention of a Hollywood agent, and by 1955, Kirk was appearing on TV Reader's Digest.
Kirk was all over TV in the '50s, including on episodes of Frontier (1956), Crossroads (1956), Gunsmoke (1956), The Loretta Young Show (1956), and Matinee Theater (he was especially proud of his over 30 parts between 1956 and 1958).
His most important early role was that of Joe Hardy on serialized versions of The Hardy Boys that aired as part of The Mickey Mouse Club (1956-1958). Not only was the character popular and wholesome, the TV work brought him to the attention of Walt Disney (1901-1966) himself. It was because of the star quality Disney saw in Kirk that he was cast as Travis Coates in the tear-jerking feature Old Yeller (1957), which was a monster hit for the studio and which has since become a classic.
Kirk starred in The Shaggy Dog (1959) for Disney with frequent co-stars Annette Funicello (1942-2013) and Fred MacMurray (1908-1991). His contract not renewed, Kirk was re-signed by Disney once The Shaggy Dog became an unexpected blockbuster.
In short succession, Kirk also appeared in two more family faves, Swiss Family Robinson (1960) and The Absent-Minded Professor (1961).
He did have his share of flops, but Kirk bounced back with the teen-powered romance Escapade in Florence, a 1962 Disney TV movie with Funicello. (One of its other stars, Nino Castelnuovo, died at 84 earlier this month.)
He also hit it big with Disney's The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964).
Kirk's career was threatened when Walt Disney discovered the poorly kept secret that Kirk was gay. The studio head was said to have personally fired the 21-year-old actor, then rehired him for a Merlin Jones sequel, The Monkey's Uncle (1965).
He went from Disney to AIP's beach comedies, starting by playing a Martian in the hit Pajama Party (1964).
A self-described self-destructive streak led Kirk to a Christmas Eve drug arrest in 1964. Though charges were dropped, so were many opportunities. Following The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966), Kirk hated most of the work he took to make ends meet.
Kirk kicked drugs and came out as gay in 1973, making him one of the earliest major stars to do so, but while he studied acting formally, he very rarely worked as an actor again. He was on a 1973 episode of The Streets of San Francisco and in a few low-budget movies, ending with The Education of a Vampire. Running a carpet-cleaning business for 20 years, he became a go-to guest at autograph shows, where he offered sometimes scorching remembrances of his days as the boy-next-door.
In 2011, when I first met Tommy, he said being out as a gay man was never something he regretted, noting, "Ben Franklin said honesty is always the best policy, right? Honesty is not always the most popular policy, but it's the best policy." He also told me some directors hit on him as a youth, and refused to accept he was ever a looker. "All I had going for me was my youth. Everyone is beautiful when they’re 14. Aside from being 14, I was just ordinary as I am today."
When I asked him about the many, many big and colorful names with whom he worked, mostly on early television, he said Basil Rathbone (1892-1967) was his favorite, because he was attentive and polite and nurturing and the "sweetest, friendliest ... raconteur." He also loved Dorothy Maguire (1918-1981), Ray Bolger (1904-1987) and Fred MacMurray (1908-1991). But Jane Wyman (1917-2007) "was a bitch," he observed, which pained him since he'd been a fan. "I loved her before I met her."
In spite of the rough time he had as an out gay man with substance-abuse issues in the '60s and '70s, in 2006, decades after Walt Disney had cast him out of the kingdom for being gay, Kirk became a Disney Legend — an honor he truly deserved as the star of so many classic Disney films.