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Tommy Kirk, whose career as a young leading man in Disney films like Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog and Son of Flubber came to an end, he said, after the studio discovered he was gay, has died. He was 79.
Kirk first made his mark starring as sleuth Joe Hardy in a pair of Hardy Boys TV serials, “The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure” and “The Mystery of the Ghost Farm,” offshoots of ABC’s The Mickey Mouse Club that aired in 1956-57.
He also played the middle son, Ernst, in Swiss Family Robinson (1960) — James MacArthur and Kevin Corcoran were his brothers and John Mills and Dorothy McGuire his parents — and starred as college brainiac Merlin Jones opposite Annette Funicello in two more Disney movies.
Kirk brought many a tear to movie audiences’ eyes starring as country kid Travis Coates alongside a heroic Labrador retriever in Old Yeller (1957), then turned into a pooch himself — a sheepdog named Chiffonn — in The Shaggy Dog (1959), the first of four movies he made with Fred MacMurray.
After portraying Biff Hawk opposite MacMurray as a chemistry professor in The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and the sequel Son of Flubber (1963), Kirk had an unexpected hit with The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964), which had been developed for television before Disney decided to place it in theaters instead.
While filming the movie, Kirk, then 21, started seeing a 15-year-old boy he had met at a swimming pool. Disney execs learned about the relationship through the boy’s mother, and Kirk was let go, though he did return for one more movie, Merlin Jones sequel The Monkey’s Uncle (1965).
“When I was about 17 or 18 years old, I finally admitted to myself that [I was gay and] wasn’t going to change,” he told Kevin Minton in an interview for a 1993 article titled “Sex, Lies, and Disney Tape: Walt’s Fallen Star” for 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.”
He added, “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.”
The circumstances behind his departure went unpublicized, and Kirk landed at American International Pictures, where he played a Martian in a reunion with Funicello in Pajama Party (1964).
However, his career was never the same after he appeared in several bad flicks, starting with Village of the Giants (1965) and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966). Like many former child actors in Hollywood, Kirk also had problems with drug abuse.
One of four sons, Thomas Harvey Kirk was born on Dec. 10, 1941, in Louisville, Kentucky. He and his family moved to Downey, California, when he was an infant, and his father, Louis, went to work in the aircraft industry as a mechanic. His mother, Doris, was a stenographer.
In 1954, Kirk tagged along with his older brother Joe to an audition for Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness at the Pasadena Playhouse and wound up with a part (while Joe didn’t get one) opposite Will Rogers Jr. and Bobby Driscoll.
He was signed by an agent who saw him in that, and Kirk appeared in The Peacemaker (1956) and on TV in Lux Video Theatre, The Loretta Young Show, Gunsmoke and more than 30 episodes of Matinee Theatre before getting his first contract at Disney.
“He was one of the most talented people I ever worked with. Frighteningly talented,” his Hardy Boys onscreen brother, Tim Considine, said in a statement. “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 a privilege to work with him and call him a friend.”
In 1956, the studio sent him and Mouseketeer Judy Harriet to the Democratic and Republican national conventions for newsreel specials.
Talking about Old Yeller, film historian Leonard Maltin said, “One of the reasons people remember [the film] 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.”
Kirk was earning $1,000 a week but soon went through “a difficult stage,” he noted in 1962. “I was thin and gangly and I looked a mess. That was when the studio told me they didn’t have any future projects for me, so I was being dropped.
“I thought the whole world had fallen to pieces. But a short time later, the studio called me up and offered me a role in Swiss Family Robinson. I got a whole new contract, and I’ve been working ever since.”
An arrest for possession of marijuana cost him work in the 1965 films The Sons of Katie Elder and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, and he told Minton he “almost died of a drug overdose a couple of times.”
Kirk also appeared in such lamentable projects as It’s a Bikini World (1967), Catalina Caper (1967), Blood of Ghastly Horror (1967), Mars Needs Women (1968), Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfolds (1995) and Billy Frankenstein (1998).
However, he said he got his life back on track and ran a San Fernando Valley-based carpet and upholstery cleaning company for years.
On the occasion of being named a Disney Legend in 2006, Kirk recalled bumping into Walt Disney at a hotel in Beverly Hills when the studio head with was a gossip columnist: “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.”
On Facebook, Petersen — the Donna Reed Show star who launched the support group A Minor Consideration to lend a hand to former kid actors like himself — noted that Kirk was “estranged from what remains of his blood-family.”
“Please know that Tommy Kirk loved you, his fans,” he added. “You lifted him up when an Industry let him down in 1965. He was not bitter. His church comforted him. May God have mercy on his soul.”
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