Former child star Tommy Kirk, who was best known for his roles in Disney films such as Swiss Family Robinson, Old Yeller, and The Shaggy Dog, was found dead in his Las Vegas home on Tuesday. He was 79 years old.
The cause of death has not been released, although no foul play is suspected. Close friend Paul Petersen II shared the sad news in a statement posted to Facebook. “Please know that Tommy Kirk loved you, his fans,” he wrote.
Tommy Kirk was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on December 10, 1941. When he was just 15 months old, his family moved to Los Angeles to pursue better job opportunities. Tommy accompanied his brother Joe to an audition in 1954 and although Joe didn’t get a part, young Tommy did. A talent agent saw his performance in the play, and his television career started to blossom.
Some of his earliest TV roles included Gunsmoke, Bigtown, Crossroads, and the Mickey Mouse Club’s Hardy Boys serial adventures.
Rise and fall as a Disney darling
Being cast as Travis Coates in Disney’s tearjerker film Old Yeller was Kirk’s big break. The movie about a boy and his heroic dog was a box-office success and Kirk became a go-to actor for Disney.
Other notable Disney film credits include 1959’s The Shaggy Dog, The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), Bon Vogage (1962), and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1963).
His career as an actor for Disney came to an end in 1963 when the studio discovered he was gay. Difficult times followed his departure from Disney, including being arrested in 1964 for possession of marijuana and barbiturates. Despite the barbiturates being prescribed, the incident led studios to cast other actors in several of Kirk’s upcoming roles.
In 1973, Kirk publicly came out as gay. In an interview for Filmfax magazine, he said, “I didn’t know what the consequences[of coming out] would be, but I had the definite feeling that it was going to wreck my Disney career and maybe my whole acting career.”
He did land parts in some unremarkable films such as Pajama Party (1964), Village of the Giants (1965), and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966), but ended up leaving the acting business in 1973. Kirk said at the time that he didn’t blame Disney or other studios for not wanting to work with him because of his ongoing struggles with addiction.
Kirk got his life back on track and operated a carpet and upholstery cleaning company in the San Fernando Valley for years.
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On October 9, 2006, alongside his former co-stars Tim Considine and Kevin Corcoran, Tommy Kirk was named a Disney Legend. He shared this story about a chance encounter with Walt Disney in Beverly Hills. “He was with Hedda Hopper, the legendary 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.”
Kirk added, “I want to be remembered for my Disney work, like ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ and ‘Old Yeller.’”
RIP Tommy Kirk, 1941 – 2021