Tommy Kirk

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Tommy Kirk
Tommy Kirk & Sandra Dee.jpg
Tommy Kirk and Sandra Dee recording the English dub of The Snow Queen, 1959.
Thomas Lee Kirk

(1941-12-10) December 10, 1941 (age 77)
Years active1955 – Present
Parent(s)Louis and Lucy Kirk

Thomas Lee Kirk (born December 10, 1941) is an American former actor and later a businessman. He is best known for his performances in a number of highly popular movies made by Walt Disney Studios such as Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog, The Swiss Family Robinson and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, as well as beach-party movies of the mid-1960s.

Early career[edit]

Kirk was born in Louisville, Kentucky, one of four sons. His father was a mechanic who worked for the Highway Department; his mother, a legal secretary. Looking for better job opportunities, they moved to Downey in Los Angeles County, California, when Kirk was fifteen months old.[1][2]

In 1954, Kirk accompanied his elder brother Joe to an audition for a production of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California. Joe was not cast, losing out to Bobby Driscoll, but Tommy was, and he made his stage debut opposite Will Rogers, Jr.[3] The performance was seen by an agent from the Gertz agency who signed Kirk and succeeded in casting him in an episode of TV Reader's Digest, "The Last of the Old Time Shooting Sheriffs", directed by William Beaudine.

Kirk began to work steadily in television throughout 1956 and 1957: episodes of Lux Video Theatre ("Green Promise"), Frontier ("The Devil and Doctor O'Hara"), Big Town ("Adult Delinquents"), Crossroads ("The Rabbi Davis Story"), Gunsmoke ("Cow Doctor"), Letter to Loretta ("But for God's Grace", "Little League"), and Matinee Theatre ("The Outing", "The Others" – a version of Turn of the Screw).

Kirk also supported Angie Dickinson in a short feature called Down Liberty Road (aka Freedom Highway) (1956),[4] a short commercial travelogue produced by Greyhound Lines to promote their Scenicruiser buses.

Of these early experiences, Kirk especially liked working on Matinee Theatre:

I did thirty-seven of those in the next five years. I think I did more than any other actor. That was a fantastic training ground. They were hour-long shows, telecast live from coast to coast. I worked with some fascinating people—Sarah Churchill and others — and I started getting known.[5]

The Hardy Boys and Disney[edit]

In April 1956, Kirk auditioned for the part of Joe Hardy for The Mickey Mouse Club serial "The Hardy Boys: The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure". He was successful and was selected to co-star with Tim Considine. The show was filmed in June and early July 1956, and broadcast that October, at the start of the show's second season.[6] The show and Kirk's performance were extremely well received and led to a long association between the actor and the studio.

In August 1956 Disney hired Kirk and former Mouseketeer Judy Harriet to attend both the Republican and Democratic presidential nominating conventions, for newsreel specials that later appeared on the show.[7] Kirk also hosted short travelogues for the serial segment of the show's second season. He did the voice-over narration for "The Eagle Hunters", and then co-hosted two more travelogues with Annette Funicello. Tommy also did voice-dubbing work for the Danish-made film Vesterhavsdrenge, shown on the Mickey Mouse Club as the serial "Boys of the Western Sea." Around this time it was announced Kirk would appear as Young Davy Crockett, but this does not seem to have eventuated.[8]

Old Yeller[edit]

Tommy Kirk and Dorothy McGuire in trailer for "Old Yeller" (1957)

Kirk's career received its biggest break yet when in January 1957 Disney cast him as Travis Coates in Old Yeller (1957), an adventure story about a boy and his heroic dog.[9] Kirk had the lead role in the film, which was enormously successful, and he became Disney's first choice whenever they needed someone to play an all-American teenager. Kevin Corcoran played his younger brother and the two of them would often be teamed.

Both Kirk and Corcoran were announced for the cast of Rainbow Road to Oz, a feature film based on the stories of L. Frank Baum, but this film was never produced.[10]

Kirk appeared in another Hardy brothers installment, the original story The Mystery of Ghost Farm (September 13 – December 20, 1957). He continued to guest star in TV series, such as The O. Henry Playhouse ("Christmas by Injunction"), The Californians (as Billy Kilgore in "Little Lost Man"), Matinee Theatre ("Look Out for John Tucker") and Playhouse 90 ("A Corner of the Garden"). He provided the voice (along with Sandra Dee) for the U.S. version of a Soviet animated feature, The Snow Queen (1957).

The Shaggy Dog[edit]

Kirk then starred in The Shaggy Dog (1959), a comedy about a boy inventor who, under the influence of a magic ring, is repeatedly transformed into an Old English Sheepdog. This teamed him with Corcoran and two other Disney stars with whom he would regularly work, Fred MacMurray and Annette Funicello. Kirk says when filming finished, Disney told him they did not have any projects for him and he was being dropped. "I was thin and gangly and looked a mess... I thought the whole world had fallen to pieces," he said.[11]

He went back to TV, appearing in The Millionaire ('Millionaire Charles Bradwell") (1959) and Bachelor Father ("A Key for Kelly"). Shaggy Dog turned out to be a massive hit - bigger than Old Yeller and Disney soon contacted Kirk offering him another long-term contract and a role as middle son Ernst Robinson in another adventure film, Swiss Family Robinson (1960). This was another box office hit, and it remains Kirk's favorite movie.[12]

Disney Comedies[edit]

He followed up with three highly successful comedies where he supported Fred MacMurray: The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), Bon Voyage (1962), and Son of Flubber (1963). MacMurray once reportedly gave Kirk "the biggest dressing-down of my life" during the filming of Bon Voyage!, one that Kirk says he deserved.[13] Kirk:

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 sort of 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.[14]

But Kirk maintained good relationships with other actors he worked with. "Tommy played my brother in a lot of films and put up with a lot of things that I did to him over the years," Corcoran says in a commentary on the DVD release of Old Yeller. "He must be a great person not to hate me." Tim Considine calls Kirk "a monster talent."[13]

Kirk guested on Angel ("Goodbye Young Lovers"), and for Disney played Grumio in the fairy tale fantasy Babes in Toyland, supporting Funicello, Ray Bolger, Ed Wynn and Tommy Sands. Kirk later described this film as "sort of a klunker... but it has a few cute moments, it's an oddity", and enjoyed working with Ed Wynn.[15]

Also for Disney he had a small role in Moon Pilot (1962), playing the younger brother of Tom Tryon, and starred with Funicello in two stories shot overseas which screened in the US on TV but were released in some countries theatrically: The Horsemasters (1961) and Escapade in Florence (1962). Newspaper columns occasionally linked Kirk and Funicello's names romantically.[16] Kirk always spoke highly of her:

A perfect lady, perfect manners, very careful about her career, a very cool-headed businesswoman, friendly. We've always been friendly, but never been friends... But nobody can fault her, she's always friendly and gracious to everybody. People say bad things about everybody in this business, but I don't know anybody who ever said anything bad about her.[14]

Misadventures of Merlin Jones[edit]

Kirk guest starred on an episode of Mr. Novak, "Love in the Wrong Season" (1963). He was given the lead in Disney's Savage Sam (1963), a follow up to Old Yeller with Corcoran and Brian Keith which did not do as well at the box office. He guested in "Ten Minutes from Now", an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1964).

Disney then cast Kirk as "scrambled egghead" student inventor Merlin Jones in The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964), opposite Funicello. The film was directed by Robert Stevenson and directed by Bill Walsh, who had made the bulk of Disney's comedies. It became an unexpected box office sensation and was one of the biggest hits of the year.

Leaving Disney[edit]

Tommy Kirk in trailer for Pajama Party (1964)

Kirk said he knew he was gay from an early age:

I consider my teenage years as being desperately unhappy. I knew I was gay, but I had no outlet for my feelings. It was very hard to meet people and, at that time, there was no place to go to socialize. It wasn't until the early '60s that I began to hear of places where gays congregated. The lifestyle was not recognized and I was very, very lonely. Oh, I had some brief, very passionate encounters and as a teenager I had some affairs, but they were always stolen, back alley kind of things. They were desperate and miserable. When I was about 17 or 18 years old, I finally admitted to myself that I wasn't going to change. 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. It was all going to come to an end.[17]

While filming The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, Kirk started seeing a 15-year-old boy he had met at a local swimming pool. The boy's mother discovered the affair and informed Disney, who elected not to renew Kirk's contract.[18] Kirk was 21 years old. Walt Disney himself fired Kirk after receiving a complaint from the boy's mother.[19] Kirk describes the situation himself: "Even more than MGM, Disney was the most conservative studio in town.... The studio executives were beginning to suspect my homosexuality. Certain people were growing less and less friendly. In 1963, Disney let me go. But Walt asked me to return for the final Merlin Jones movie, The Monkey's Uncle, because the Jones films had been moneymakers for the studio." [20]

The news was not made public and Kirk soon found a home for himself at American International Pictures (AIP) who were looking for a leading man to co-star with Funicello in a musical they were preparing, The Maid and the Martian; Kirk was cast as a Martian who arrives on Earth and falls in with a bunch of partying teenagers. The movie was later retitled Pajama Party and was a hit, so AIP signed him to star in a follow-up, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.

In the meantime The Misadventures of Merlin Jones had become an unexpected smash hit, earning $4 million in rentals in North America and Disney invited him back to make a sequel, The Monkey's Uncle (1965). He was also cast in a John Wayne film, The Sons of Katie Elder, and it seemed his career was in good shape.

Career decline[edit]

On Christmas Eve 1964 Kirk was arrested for possession of marijuana.[21] Although the charges were later dropped on a technicality in January 1965,[22] Kirk was replaced on Wild Bikini by Dwayne Hickman and on Katie Elder by Michael Anderson, Jr..

"This town is full of right-wingers—the world is full of right-wingers—intolerant, cruel sons-of-bitches," said Kirk later.[5] But he later said that he "richly deserved to be fired from the studios because of my irresponsibility. A person on drugs is not fit for work."[12]

For the moment Kirk could still get work. He appeared in Village of the Giants (1965) for director Bert I. Gordon alongside Beau Bridges and Ron Howard. Kirk later described it as "kind of a crazy movie, but the production values are pretty good and it sort of holds together. I could have done without the dancing ducks, though.".[17]

In late 1965 it was announced Kirk had signed a four-picture contract with Executive Pictures Corp, but only one movie resulted, the beach movie/crime comedy Catalina Caper (filmed in 1965,[23] released in 1967).[24] Along with Village of the Giants this was eventually lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The Monkey's Uncle came out and was almost as successful as Merlin Jones. AIP cast him in The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966) with Deborah Walley, with whom he was then reteamed on It's a Bikini World, directed by Stephanie Rothman. Also for AIP he appeared in a TV special, The Wild Weird World of Dr. Goldfoot (1965), made to promote Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.

Larry Buchanan[edit]

The release of Bikini World and Catalina Caper was held up for a number of months and Ghost in the Invisible Bikini was a box office failure, leading the end of the beach movie cycle. Kirk's career was losing momentum. Kirk:

After I was fired from Disney, I did some of the worst movies ever made and I got involved with a manager who said it didn't matter what you did as long as you kept working. He put me in every piece of shit that anybody offered. I did a series of terrible things, but it was only to get the money.[17]

Kirk did not criticize the AIP films which he described as "cute, lightweight screwball comedies, but their production values are high. I'm not ashamed of those, but I did some other movies that you wouldn't believe. My manager said just take it, whatever it is, just take it, or they'll forget you."[17]

Among those were a comedy for Jack H. Harris, Unkissed Bride (1966), and two films he made for Texan director Larry Buchanan: Mars Needs Women, where he costarred with "Batgirl" Yvonne Craig, and It's Alive!. Kirk:

What I was doing in those pictures, I don't know. The only thing I can say is that I had a drug problem then, and I didn't know what I was doing, or what I was getting into. I was an idiot. Buchanan's like a cinematic serial killer, and he's got to be stopped before he kills again... But I'd also like to add that personally, Larry Buchanan was one of the nicest, most gracious men I ever work for. He paid me well, he was generous, and he was decent."[25]

Kirk's acting career tapered off during the late 1960s, hampered by the transition to adulthood, drug use, and "personal problems."[13] He was in a car racing film, Track of Thunder (1967) and

I was drinking, taking pills and smoking grass. In fact, I was pretty wild. I came into a whole lot of money, but I threw a lot of parties and spent it all. I wound up completely broke. I had no self-discipline and I almost died of a drug overdose a couple of times. It's a miracle that I'm still around. All of that didn't help the situation. Nobody would touch me; I was considered box office poison.[17]

Kirk says by the time of Track of Thunder he was so into drugs "I was about half awake in that film. I just sort of walked through it and took the money."[14]

Kirk says he reached bottom in 1970 when he did two movies that were non-Screen Actors Guild, Ride the Hot Wind and Blood of Ghastly Horror, causing Kirk to almost lose his SAG card. "Finally, I said, 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."[12]

Kirk publicly came out as gay in a 1973 interview with Marvin Jones.[citation needed] At the time he was studying acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, while working as a busboy in a Los Angeles restaurant. He was in "Deadline", a 1973 episode of The Streets of San Francisco (1973) and a feature My Name is Legend (1975).

Post-acting career[edit]

Kirk at the 2009 Disney D23 Expo

Kirk got over his drug addiction and gave up acting in the mid-1970s. He worked as a waiter and a chauffeur before going into the carpet cleaning business in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, an operation which he ran for twenty years. In 1990 he said:

I made a lot of money and I spent it all. No bitterness. No regrets. I did what I did... I wasn't the boy next door anymore. I could pretend to be for a few hours a day in front of the camera. But I couldn't live it. I'm human. I'm not Francis of Assisi.[2]

He continued to act occasionally, including in the R-rated spoof Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold. As of 2006, Kirk had more than thirty feature film roles to his credit. He also enjoyed writing.

I don't blame anybody but myself and my drug abuse for my career going haywire. I'm not ashamed of being gay, never have been, and never will be. For that I make no apologies. I have no animosity toward anybody because the truth is, I wrecked my own career.[14]

Disney legend[edit]

Tommy Kirk was inducted as a Disney Legend on October 9, 2006, alongside his former co-stars Tim Considine and Kevin Corcoran. His other repeat co-stars, Annette Funicello and Fred MacMurray, had already been inducted (in 1992 and 1987, respectively). Also in 2006, the first of Kirk's Hardy Boys serials was issued on DVD in the fifth "wave" of the Walt Disney Treasures series.[26]


Short Subjects

Television credits[edit]

  • TV Reader's Digest – "The Last of the Old Time Shooting Sheriffs" – 17 January 1955
  • Frontier – "The Devil and Doctor O'Hara" – 5 February 1956
  • Letter to Loretta – "But for God's Grace" – 1 April 1956
  • Big Town – "Adult Delinquents" – 8 May 1956
  • Crossroads – "The Rabbi Davis Story" – 8 June 1956
  • Gunsmoke – "Cow Doctor" – 8 September 1956
  • Letter to Loretta – "Little League" – 16 September 1956
  • The Mickey Mouse Club – "The Hardy Boys: The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure" – 2–26 October 1956
  • Matinee Theatre – "The Outing" – 2 November 1956
  • The Mickey Mouse Club – "The Eagle Hunters" – voice over narration
  • The Mickey Mouse Club – "Boys of the Western Sea" – voice over
  • Matinee Theatre – "The Others" (based on The Turn of the Screw) – 15 February 1957
  • The Mickey Mouse Club – "The Mystery of Ghost Farm" – 13 September – 20 December 1957
  • The Californians – "Little Lost Man" – 3 December 1957
  • Matinee Theatre – "Look Out for John Tucker" – 4 June 1958
  • Playhouse 90 – "A Corner of the Garden" – 23 April 1959
  • The Millionaire – "Millionaire Charles Bradwell" – 10 June 1959
  • Bachelor Father – "A Key for Kelly" – 19 November 1959
  • Angel – "Goodbye Young Lovers" – 17 May 1961
  • Mr. Novak – "Love in the Wrong Season" – 3 December 1963
  • Shindig! – "The Wild Weird World of Dr. Goldfoot" – 18 November 1965
  • The Streets of San Francisco – "Deadline" – 15 February 1973


  1. ^ Freida Zylstra, 'Actor Tommy Kirk Tries His Hand in Kitchen', Chicago Daily Tribune (1923–1963) [Chicago, Illinois] 18 January 1963: b7.
  2. ^ a b Disney kid Tommy Kirk a cheerful has-been at 48 Edwards, Don. Chicago Tribune (1963–Current file) [Chicago, Ill] 06 November 1990: N_B7.
  3. ^ 'Will Rogers, Jr. Makes Auspicious Stage Debut', Los Angeles Times (1923–Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 21 August 1954: 13.
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b Jones interview
  6. ^ "TV – 1955 / 57 Disney Serials". Retrieved 2006-12-21.
  7. ^ Southland Girl, 13, Boy, 14, Cover Parley for Newsreel, A Times Staff Representative. Los Angeles Times (1923–Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 17 August 1956: C2.
  8. ^ Hedda Hopper, 'Looking at Hollywood: Top Role in War Film Goes to Paul Newman', Chicago Daily Tribune (1923–1963) [Chicago, Ill] 23 August 1956: c2.
  9. ^ Hedda Hopper, 'Solid Acting Found on 'Old Yeller' Set', Los Angeles Times (1923–Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 23 April 1957: C6.
  10. ^ 'Movie Producers Crashing Broadway', The Washington Post and Times Herald (1954–1959) [Washington, D.C] 03 September 1957: B8.
  11. ^ Thomas, Bob (29 June 1962). "Tommy Grows Up". Toledo Blade. Retrieved 2 August 2012.
  12. ^ a b c Minton p 69
  13. ^ a b c "Tommy Kirk (Television & Film)". Disney Legends. The Walt Disney Company. October 2006. Retrieved 2006-12-21.
  14. ^ a b c d Minton p 71
  15. ^ Minton p70
  16. ^ 'Soraya Is Denying Marriage Plans', The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959–1973) [Washington, D.C] 06 November 1963: D14.
  17. ^ a b c d e Minton p 68
  18. ^
  19. ^ "Tommy Kirk". Retrieved November 12, 2010.
  20. ^ "Imdb bio".
  21. ^ "Actor Jailed". Daily Review. Associated Press. 1964-12-26. p. 1. Actor Tommy Kirk was among nine persons booked on suspicion of possessing marijuana after a raid on a party at a Hollywood model's home, police reported. Kirk ... was arrested Friday along with the others...
  22. ^ 'Tommy Kirk Cleared of Drug Charge', Los Angeles Times (1923–Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 05 January 1965: b6.
  23. ^ MOVIE CALL SWEET: Shaw Rejoins Film Colony Martin, Betty. Los Angeles Times (1923–Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 18 Aug 1965: D10
  24. ^ Betty Martin, 'Franciosa Set for 'Swinger', Los Angeles Times (1923–Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 18 December 1965: a12.
  25. ^ Minton p 70
  26. ^ "Sir Elton John, Joe Ranft Headline Disney Legends Award". AWN Headline News. AWN Inc. 2006-10-09. Archived from the original on 2007-09-20. Retrieved 2006-10-10.

Further reading[edit]

  • Minton, Kevin, "Sex, Lies, and Disney Tape: Walt's Fallen Star", Filmfax Issue 38, April 1993 p 67-71.
  • Jones, Marvin, "Interview with Tommy Kirk" – from 1973, but later published in Quorum Magazine and reprinted at Campfire Video
  • Holmstrom, John. The Moving Picture Boy: An International Encyclopaedia from 1895 to 1995, Norwich, Michael Russell, 1996, p. 230.

External links[edit]