Who is Tommy Kirk?
Tommy Kirk was an actor who gained popularity by portraying various characters in several Disney Walt Studios films, including “The Shaggy Dog”, “Old Yeller” and “The Absent-Minded Professor”. He was born under the zodiac sign Scorpio on December 10, 1941 in Louisville, Kentucky, USA, and died on September 28, 2021 at age 79 in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA.
Early life and family
He was born to Louie Kirk, a mechanic, and Lucy Kirk who worked as a legal secretary. When he was very young, his family moved from Louisville to Downey, California in search of better job opportunities. As for his siblings, he has three brothers; his brother Joe also tried to start an acting career but later found success as a dentist.
Tommy developed an interest in acting in his early teens, when he had a small part in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s comedy play “Ah, Wilderness”, at the Pasadena Playhouse. After the play’s premiere, he was discovered by an agent who offered him a contract; he went on to appear in two more plays, “Barefoot in Athens” and “Portraits in Black” at the Pasadena Playhouse, followed by his first TV appearances in “Big Town”, “The Loretta Young Show” and “Gunsmoke”.
After his minor appearances in the short film “Down Liberty Road” and the western “The Peacemaker” in 1954, Tommy guest-starred in an episode of the popular anthology series entitled “Matinee Theater”.
The memorable performance quickly caught the newly scrubbed Tommy’s attention to Walt Disney, the famed animator, mogul and writer, who signed him in 1995, and that same year he joined the animated series “The Mickey Mouse Club” as a non-Mouseketeer, who appears in several dramatic segments. He then landed the role of Joe Hardy in the series “The Hardy Boys: The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure,” which catapulted his career to stardom, securing numerous roles in several commercially successful films.
His next notable role came in 1957, when he starred in the Disney film “Old Yeller” as Travis Coates, earning him the status of a rural teen idol. Tommy followed with the title role as Wilby Daniels in the comedy movie “The Shaggy Dog”, one of the highest-grossing films of the 1950s. After filming ended, it looked like Disney was going to drop Jimmy, as in one of his interviews he said, “I was skinny and lanky and looked a mess. I thought the whole world had fallen to pieces.’
His other roles
After the film’s huge commercial success, Disney expanded the partnership and offered him the role of Ernst Robinson in the film. adventure movie “Swiss Family Robinson”, alongside John Mills, Dorothy McGuire and Janet Munro. This interesting expedition, which follows the Swiss family of four, was also a huge success and has remained one of Disney’s best-loved films.
In 1961, he landed the role of Bigg Hawk in the sci-fi series “The Absent-Minded Professor”, which proved to be another hit for Disney. Shortly after, he shared the stage with Ray Bolger and Tommy Sands in the fairy tale “Babes in Toyland”, but it did not reach the success of his previous films. Tommy also starred in “Bon Voyage,” “Moon Pilot,” and “Son of Flubber,” before Disney made the 1963 sequel to “Old Yeller,” titled “Savage Sam,” casting Tommy as the lead character.
The film received bad reviews and it looked like Tommy’s career was almost coming to an end. In 1964, however, he turned things around after starring in the sci-fi comedy film “The Misadventures of Merlin Jones,” a huge box-office hit. Unfortunately, his luck would not last long and in the same year Disney terminated Tommy’s contract.
Why was he released from Disney?
While Tommy was working on “The Misadventures of Merlin Jones”, was found in a swimming pool having sex with an underage boy in Burbank. The boy’s mother informed Disney of this incident and the studio had no choice but to terminate his contract. In an interview, Tommy spoke about his sexuality, saying, “I consider my teenage years to be desperately unhappy. I knew I was gay, but I had no outlet for my feelings. When I was about 17 or 18 years old, I finally admitted to myself that I wasn’t going to change. I really felt like it would ruin my Disney career.”
Despite the scandals, he was rehired by Disney in 1965 to film the sequel to “Merlin Jones”, titled “The Monkey’s Uncle”. Tommy revealed: “Disney was the most conservative studio in town. The studio managers began to suspect my homosexuality. In 1964 Disney let me go, but Walt asked me to return for the last Merlin Jones movie because the Jones movies made money for the studio.”
Since the news of the termination of his contract with Disney Studio was not made public, he was quickly signed by American International Picture (AIP), who cast him as Martian in the movie “Pajama Party”, to great acclaim.
In 1964 the actor attended a Christmas party that was raided by the police, and Tommy was subsequently arrested for marijuana possession.
After searching his vehicle, police also found a vial of barbiturates; even though the charges were dropped, the damage was done.
He was reportedly going to appear in the western “The Sons of Katie Elder”, but the role was passed on to another actor, as well as the sequel to “Pajama Party”, titled “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini”.
Reviving his career
Though his career took a serious blow, he still managed to land some roles in films such as “Village of the Giants” and “Catalina Caper”. After “The Monkey’s Uncle” became a popular movie with numerous positive reviews, the AIP Studio cast Tommy in the movie “The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini” and the TV special “The Wild Weird World of Dr. Goldfoot”. turned out to be big flops, and the bubble was completely shattered.
In one of his interviews, Tommy reflected on his roles in these movies, saying, “I made some of the worst movies ever and I got involved with a manager who said it didn’t matter what you did as long as you stayed to work. He put me in every piece of shit anyone offered. I’ve done a series of horrible things, but it was just to get the money.’
Despite his dying career, popped up in “Unkissed Bride”, “Mars Needs Women” and “It’s Alive!”. However, Tommy felt that these roles did not do much for his career, and in 1967 he starred in the action drama “Track of Thunder”.
Unfortunately, his long-term mental health issues and long-term drug use were evident at the time, and it was clear that his fragile mental health was taking a toll on his career. He officially hit rock bottom in 1970 when he appeared in a movie that wasn’t a Screen Actor Guild, then lost his SAG card, proving he was a member of the TV and movie actors’ union.
Three years later, he enrolled at the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute, while simultaneously working as a busboy at a Los Angeles restaurant. He last appeared in the 1975 western film “My Name is Legend” and an episode of the “The Streets of San Francisco” series.
Post acting career
After his prolific and promising career as an actor collapsed, he turned to drugs for comfort and at one point nearly died of an overdose. In the mid-1970s, he officially retired from acting and faded from the limelight. He was reportedly admitted to rehab and his journey to sobriety began. Working primarily as a waiter and driver, he founded a carpet and furniture cleaning business called Tommy Kirk’s Carpet and Upholstery in the San Fernando Valley in the 1980s, which operated for more than 20 years. In 1990, he came back shortly to the screen, appearing in several low-budget films, including “Streets of Death”, “Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold” and “Little Miss Magic”.
It is with sadness that we learn of the passing of Tommy Kirk (1941-2021) – star of iconic family films such as OLD YELLER, THE SHAGGY DOG…
He most recently appeared in “Billy Frankenstein”, “Club Dead” and “The Education of a Vampire”. In 2006, he retired from both the entertainment industry and his cleaning business, but was inducted as a Disney legend the same year. Reflecting on his career, he revealed: “I don’t blame anyone but myself and my drug abuse for my career on the rocks. I’m not ashamed of being gay, I never have been and never will be. I make no apologies for that. I have no animosity towards anyone because the truth is I ruined my career.”
In 1973, he came out and revealed to the world that he was gay in an interview with Marvin Jones. Given the stigma and negativity surrounding homosexuality at the time, he never revealed any of his romantic partners.
What was his net worth?
Although his acting career faltered in the 1990s, at the time of his death his estimated net value was around $500,000.