Tommy Kirk


Actor

About

Birth Place
Louisville, Kentucky, USA
Born
December 10, 1941

Biography

A likable, boyish player in Walt Disney Pictures' film and television efforts during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Tommy Kirk played good-hearted if hapless boys and teenagers in such popular live-action pictures as "Old Yeller" (1957), "The Shaggy Dog" (1957), "The Absent-Minded Professor" (1962) and "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones" (1964). However, the clean-cut image Disney const...

Photos & Videos

Old Yeller - Movie Poster
The Shaggy Dog - Pressbook
Village of the Giants - Lobby Card Set

Notes

Liz Smith gave America a sneak preview of Kirk's "no-holds-barred" MOVIELINE interview in her November 5, 1992 column:". . . As fans of this cutting-edge publication know, MOVIELINE employs those naughty Hollywood Kids, who provide the mag with many blind (or at least vision-impaired) items. The Kids also have their own Q&A column where they persuade celebs of yesterday, today and tomorrow to say the most outrageous things. This time out they've got former Disney child and teen star Tommy Kirk--and does he dish! Kirk . . . describes his mentor, Walt Disney, as 'notoriously cheap' . . . his frequent on-screen dad Fred MacMurray as 'cold . . . when I was 17, I kidded him about his wanting a close-up. He became enraged' . . . Elsa Lanchester?--'a bitch' . . . Jane Wyman?--'hated her, she talked like a truck driver!'

From MOVIELINE, December 1992:It's rumored that around 1964 you were fired by Walt Disney over some shocking scandal. True?I've never spoken about this publicly before. (Long pause) I was caught having sex with a boy at a public pool in Burbank. We were both young, and the boy's mother went to Walt. I was quickly fired.What was your social life like during that time, the mid-60s?ALL my social life was underground gay. It was my own life. I kept it separate from work, where I went on publicity dates with Annette (Funicello) or Roberta Shore.

Biography

A likable, boyish player in Walt Disney Pictures' film and television efforts during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Tommy Kirk played good-hearted if hapless boys and teenagers in such popular live-action pictures as "Old Yeller" (1957), "The Shaggy Dog" (1957), "The Absent-Minded Professor" (1962) and "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones" (1964). However, the clean-cut image Disney constructed for Kirk was a flimsy shield for his offscreen lifestyle, which included rampant drug use, as well as homosexuality. The latter proved his downfall in 1965, when word about his proclivities led Disney to eject him from their fold. Kirk struggled to maintain his career throughout the 1960s before gaining control of his life in the 1970s and opening his own successful business. Despite the stigma that surrounded his dismissal, Kirk's best efforts made him one of Disney's most beloved and most recognizable young performers.

Born Thomas Lee Kirk in Louisville, KY on Dec. 10, 1941, he was the second of four sons by parents Louis and Lucy Kirk. The family relocated to a ranch near Pacoima, CA, where Kirk spent most of his childhood riding horses. At age 12, he was dared by an older brother to try out for a production of Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!" at the Pasadena Playhouse. There, he met and performed alongside Bobby Driscoll, a former child star whose own stratospheric rise and tragic fall would echo Kirk's life and career path. While appearing in the play, Kirk was discovered by talent agents, who landed him his television debut on the anthology series "TV Reader's Digest" (ABC, 1955-56). More small screen appearances followed, as well as "Freedom's Highway" (1956) a promotional short made by Greyhound Lines. That same year, he auditioned for a serial on "The Mickey Mouse Club" called "Young Davy Crockett." The project never came to fruition, but producers kept him in mind while casting another serial, this time based on the popular Hardy Boys mystery novels. His slight stature and youthful appearance made him the perfect choice to play Joe Hardy, younger brother to Tim Considine's Frank Hardy, in "The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure" (1956-57). Kirk was also sent by Disney to cover the 1956 Republican and Democratic presidential conventions for their newsreels, and lent his voice to a variety of their projects, including several travelogues and animated shorts.

The turning point for Kirk's career proved to be "Old Yeller" (1957), a heart-rending adaptation of the Fred Gipson novel about the bond between a young boy (Kirk) and his dog. The film's conclusion, which finds Kirk forced to shoot his beloved pet after it contracts rabies, became a pop culture touchstone and a litmus test for many viewers' fortitude, with those who admitted to crying during "Old Yeller" being universally branded as "softies." The film's popularity boosted Kirk's screen profile considerably; so much so that when he returned for the second Hardy Boys serial, "The Mystery of Ghost Farm" (1957), he was granted the majority of the screen time. By this time, he had surpassed co-star Considine as the top juvenile lead at Disney, and a favorite of company head Walt Disney himself.

Kirk was placed under contract with Disney in 1957, and soon graduated to feature films. He was the teenaged lead in "The Shaggy Dog," Disney's live-action comedy-fantasy about a young science whiz who accidentally turned himself into the title canine with the help of a magic ring. A major hit with young audience, it was the top-grossing film of 1957, besting even "Ben-Hur" (1957) at the box office. Kirk was quickly cast in Disney's big-budget adaptation of "Swiss Family Robinson" (1960) as yet another inventive young man, the Robinson's middle son, Ernst. Another giant success for Disney, it too earned the top rank at the 1960 box office tally, and further boosted Kirk's status as a teen idol. The Disney publicity department fed young female readers' eagerness for news about Kirk by concocting elaborate photo shoots that depicted him on dates with his "Shaggy Dog" co-star, Roberta Sherwood, and living what appeared to most eyes as an all-American lifestyle.

However, the reality of Tommy Kirk's existence was quite different from what the Disney press machine extolled. Off-camera, Kirk was something of a libertine with a taste for hard partying; he was also homosexual, a fact that put his career in serious jeopardy. Yet he did little to cover his tracks; late nights left him unprepared and bereft of energy for a day's shooting, which at one point earned him a serious scolding by screen veteran Fred MacMurray on the set of 1962's "Bon Voyage!" But Kirk was a major star for Disney; more importantly, his pictures made money, so the company was more than willing to look past his after-hours proclivities as long as they did not interfere too drastically with his work.

The year 1961 saw Kirk add another hit to his growing résumé with "The Absent-Minded Professor," an energetic science fiction-comedy about a genial scientist (MacMurray) who invents "flubber," a substance that gains energy when it strikes a hard surface. Kirk was again the juvenile lead, a high school basketball star who benefits from MacMurray's invention during an important game. After more supporting turns in "Babes in Toyland" (1961) and "Moon Pilot" (1962), Kirk was granted his first starring role in "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones" (1964) as yet another amiable yet accident-prone scientist-in-training who creates a helmet that allows him to read minds. Kirk's co-star was his female equivalent for Disney, former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, who generated little heat with her onscreen boyfriend.

"Merlin Jones" would prove to be Kirk's biggest success with Disney, as well as his Hollywood swan song. A woman approached Disney with a complaint about Kirk's relationship with her 15-year-old son, and Kirk's contract was summarily dropped. He was allowed to complete work on "The Monkey's Uncle" (1965), the sequel to "Merlin Jones," which also marked Funicello's last appearance in a Disney film. Both she and Kirk would head to American International Pictures (AIP), a low-budget company that had struck gold in 1963 with "Beach Party," an innocuous blend of surfing, sex comedy and slapstick. Kirk was quickly snapped up by AIP, which cast him as the male lead opposite Funicello in "Pajama Party" (1964), an absurd comedy about an alien (Kirk) who lands on Earth to study human mating rituals.

But again, Kirk's brief return to the spotlight was squelched by his own bad habits. On Christmas Eve 1964, he was arrested for drug possession at a party, which effectively killed his planned comeback in the John Wayne Western "The Sons of Katie Elder" (1965). He returned to diminished roles in a string of increasingly ridiculous films for AIP, including "Village of the Giants" (1965) and "Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine" (1966). By the late 1960s, Kirk had been dispatched to AIP's television division for no-budget horrors like "Mars Needs Women" (1967), a straight-faced remake of "Pajama Party," and efforts for exploitation filmmakers like Jack H. Harris with "Mother Goose A-Go-Go" (1966), Larry Buchanan with "It's Alive" (1968) and Al Adamson with "Blood of Ghastly Horror" (1972). During this period, Kirk's drug and alcohol problems ran unabated, which eventually hampered his speech.

In the 1970s, Kirk sought help for his dependency issues, and after gaining sobriety, started his own dry-cleaning business, which he managed well into the 1990s. Kirk also acted on occasion, though mostly in poverty-struck spoofs like "Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold" (1995) and "Billy Frankenstein" (1998). In 2006, the Disney Company inducted Kirk into their Disney Legends program, which recognized individuals who had made exceptional contributions to the company. The honor coincided with the release of his Hardy Boys series on DVD that same year.

Life Events

1957

Cast as Frank Hardy on the "Hardy Boys" segments of "The Mickey Mouse Club" TV show

1957

Film debut as the star of Disney's "Old Yeller"

1964

Fired by Walt Disney

1964

Starred in his first teen exploitation film, "Pajama Party"

1965

Last Disney film, "The Monkey's Uncle", released

1976

Last film appearance in "My Name Is Legend"

Photo Collections

Old Yeller - Movie Poster
Here is the American one-sheet movie poster for Disney's Old Yeller (1957). One-sheets measured 27x41 inches, and were the poster style most commonly used in theaters.
The Shaggy Dog - Pressbook
Here is the original campaign book (pressbook) for Disney's The Shaggy Dog (1959). Pressbooks were sent to exhibitors and theater owners to aid them in publicizing the film's run in their theater.
Village of the Giants - Lobby Card Set
Here is a set of Lobby Cards from Village of the Giants (1965). Lobby Cards were 11" x 14" posters that came in sets of 8. As the name implies, they were most often displayed in movie theater lobbies, to advertise current or coming attractions.
Son of Flubber - Pressbook
Here is the original campaign book (pressbook) for Disney's Son of Flubber (1963), starring Fred MacMurray. Pressbooks were sent to exhibitors and theater owners to aid them in publicizing the film's run in their theater.
The Absent-Minded Professor - Pressbook
Here is the original campaign book (pressbook) for Disney's The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), starring Fred MacMurray. Pressbooks were sent to exhibitors and theater owners to aid them in publicizing the film's run in their theater.
Son of Flubber - Movie Poster
Here is the American one-sheet movie poster for Disney's Son of Flubber (1963), starring Fred MacMurray. One-sheets measured 27x41 inches, and were the poster style most commonly used in theaters.

Videos

Movie Clip

Son Of Flubber (1963) - We'll Hit The Beach On Capitol Hill! Joining the open in the sequel to the Disney hit The Absent-Minded Professor, 1961, Brainard (Fred MacMurray) and Biff (Tommy Kirk) fly to the Pentagon in their Flubber-powered car, for a meeting with the shameless secretary of defense (Edward Andrews), in Son Of Flubber, 1963.
Old Yeller (1958) - Get Away From That Mule! Yeller (played by the famous movie-dog "Spike") makes his first appearance, irritating Travis (Tommy Kirk) as mom Katie (Dorothy McGuire) comiserates in Disney's Old Yeller, 1958.
Old Yeller (1958) - Man Of The House Jim Coates (Fess Parker) has a parting talk with his elder son Travis (Tommy Kirk) as he departs for a cattle drive, in 1869 Texas, early in Disney's Old Yeller, 1958.
Old Yeller (1958) - Quit Rockin' My Dog! Older brother Travis (Tommy Kirk) doesn't approve of Arliss (Kevin Corcoran) making friends with the stray dog ("Spike," the title characterr) who's turned up o the farm, as mom Katie (Dorothy McGuire) officiates, in Disney's Old Yeller, 1958.
Old Yeller (1958) - I Never Saw Such A Dog! The title character ("Spike") proving himself still futther, dealing with the cow Rose whose escaped and borne a calf, then helping Travis (Tommy Kirk) with the milking, to the amazement of mom Katie (Dorothy McGuire) in Disney's Old Yeller, 1958.
Shaggy Dog, The (1959) - Missile Interceptor Mailman Wilson and housewife Freida Daniels (Fred MacMurray and Jean Hagen) are discussing discipline while their sons Wilby and Moochie (Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran) launch a rocket from the basement, early in Disney's The Shaggy Dog, 1959.
Shaggy Dog, The (1959) - In Canis Corpore... Accidentally uttering an incantation over an ancient Borgia ring, teen Wilby (Tommy Kirk) converts himself into a sheepdog and has to slip away without being noticed by his dad (Fred MacMurray) in The Shaggy Dog, 1961.
Shaggy Dog, The (1959) - Shake On it? Failing in their indirect approach, Moochie (Kevin Corcoran) and Wilby (Tommy Kirk), who's become a sheepdog break two pieces of news to their skeptical dad Wilson (Fred MacMurray) in Walt Disney's The Shaggy Dog, 1959.
Village Of The Giants (1965) - Those Are My Ducks The Beau Brummels playing Woman (as produced by Sly Stone!) when two big ducks enter the club, Mike (Tommy Kirk) claiming credit, out-of-town kids (Joy Harmon, Beau Bridges, Tisha Sterling, Tim Rooney et al) duly impressed, in Village Of The Giants, 1965.
Village Of The Giants (1965) - Let's Dance! Visitors Fred (Beau Bridges), Merrie (Joy Harmon), Pete (Tim Rooney) and pals, now huge, having ingested "Goo" and dressed in fabric they found at the theater, drop by to torment locals, especially Horsey (Johnny Crawford), in Village Of The Giants, 1965.
Village Of The Giants (1965) - Call It Goo Mike (Tommy Kirk) and Nancy (Charla Doherty) had been making out when her little brother Genius (Ronny Howard) blew something up in the basement, wild results, early in Village Of The Giants, 1965.
It's A Bikini World (1967) - Things That Really Swing Beach bum Mike (Tommy Kirk) is posing as his non-existent bookish brother Herbert, in his effort to woo the brainy new girl Delilah (Deborah Walley), in the very late beach-craze feature It's A Bikini World, 1967, smartly directed by Roger Corman protege` Stephanie Rothman.

Trailer

Bibliography

Notes

Liz Smith gave America a sneak preview of Kirk's "no-holds-barred" MOVIELINE interview in her November 5, 1992 column:". . . As fans of this cutting-edge publication know, MOVIELINE employs those naughty Hollywood Kids, who provide the mag with many blind (or at least vision-impaired) items. The Kids also have their own Q&A column where they persuade celebs of yesterday, today and tomorrow to say the most outrageous things. This time out they've got former Disney child and teen star Tommy Kirk--and does he dish! Kirk . . . describes his mentor, Walt Disney, as 'notoriously cheap' . . . his frequent on-screen dad Fred MacMurray as 'cold . . . when I was 17, I kidded him about his wanting a close-up. He became enraged' . . . Elsa Lanchester?--'a bitch' . . . Jane Wyman?--'hated her, she talked like a truck driver!'

From MOVIELINE, December 1992:It's rumored that around 1964 you were fired by Walt Disney over some shocking scandal. True?I've never spoken about this publicly before. (Long pause) I was caught having sex with a boy at a public pool in Burbank. We were both young, and the boy's mother went to Walt. I was quickly fired.What was your social life like during that time, the mid-60s?ALL my social life was underground gay. It was my own life. I kept it separate from work, where I went on publicity dates with Annette (Funicello) or Roberta Shore.