Tommy Kirk, “Old Yeller” Star, Dies Aged 79
Tommy Kirk, who was a busy star in the Disney Universe as a child and young man, appearing in “Old Yeller”, “The Shaggy Dog”, “Swiss Family Robinson” and other films in the late years 50s and early 60s, but whose career was derailed when his homosexuality became too well known and drugs and alcohol got the better of him, died Tuesday at his Las Vegas home. He was 79 years old.
The Walt Disney Company announced his death in a statement, which did not give a cause.
Mr. Kirk got into show business by accident. An older brother was auditioning for a role in “Ah, Wilderness!” by Eugene O’Neill. to the Pasadena Playhouse in California and took 12-year-old Tommy; the brother wasn’t picked, but Tommy did (though not in the role his brother auditioned for).
“An agent came backstage and introduced himself and gave me his card and said, ‘Would you like your parents to call me? “” Mr. Kirk recalled in an interview with Scarlet Street movie magazine in 1993. and I ended up signing with a Beverly Hills agency.
He started getting TV roles almost immediately, many of them in the hour-long live dramas that were ubiquitous in early television. Then he was chosen to play Joe, the younger of the two Hardy brothers who solve crimes (Tim Considine played the other, Frank), in two “Hardy Boys” adventure series aired on “The Mickey Mouse Club. “from 1956.
The following year, Disney signed him to a seven-year contract and chose him to play as the boy, Travis, who befriends the canine character from the classic family movie “Old Yeller,” famous for his endless ending. frills, in which Travis has to shoot his beloved pet because the dog has been exposed to rabies.
“I really cried,” Mr. Kirk said of his work in this scene. “You can’t pretend; you have to cry. You can’t just pull a face.
The Library of Congress added “Old Yeller” to the National Film Registry in 2019.
Beverly Washburn, who played a neighbor girl in the film and is now her last surviving actor, recalled Mr. Kirk as “a brilliant child actor”.
“He was so good and he was lovely,” she said in a phone interview. They have become lifelong friends.
The emotional ending of “Old Yeller” shocked many young viewers, but, she said, Mr. Kirk had a special take on the film.
“Tommy’s philosophy on this was that it’s about love and loss,” she said. “Life sometimes throws curves at us. All is not a white picket fence.
This was certainly the case with Mr. Kirk. He appeared in a number of other Disney films over the next seven years, many of which were silly and blockbuster comedies like “The Shaggy Dog” (1959), in which his character transformed into a sheepdog. , and “The Absent Minded Professor” (1961). ) and “Son of Flubber” (1963), both of which starred Fred MacMurray as a man who invents a rubbery substance with fantastic properties.
Mr. Kirk was also in “Swiss Family Robinson” (1960), the “Old Yeller” sequel “Savage Sam” (1963) and a few other Disney endeavors, but at the end of his contract he was trying the studio’s patience. . An incident, he said, caused the company not to renew its contract.
“I was caught having sex with a boy in a public swimming pool in Burbank,” he said, quoted in a Liz Smith column in 1992. “We were both young and we were both young and the boy’s mother went to Walt’s. “
At that time, he was drinking heavily and taking drugs.
“I was high all the time,” he told Scarlet Street. “It was a terrible time in my life. So I can understand that the studio is letting me go.
It was a time when being identified as gay was particularly damaging to a career, and a 1964 marijuana arrest – Mr. Kirk was one of nine people charged when police raided a Hollywood party – failed. helped its market value.
He made a few other films over the next decade, but they had titles like “The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini” (1966) and “Blood of Ghastly Horror” (1967). There was also “It’s Alive” (1969), which in a 1990 interview with The Lexington Herald-Leader of Kentucky, Mr. Kirk described as “a monster movie so cheap that the monster was wearing a wet suit. and had ping-pong balls for his eyes.
By the mid-1970s, he had stopped acting. He quit drugs and found strength in Christianity, which he said helped him “cleanse me of resentment and bitterness.” He founded a carpet and upholstery cleaning company. He made a few other films in the 1990s and early 2000s, but for the most part he limited his show business activities to autograph conventions.
In 2006, the Disney Company named him Disney Legend, an honor recognizing extraordinary contributions to society.
“I don’t blame Disney for firing me,” he told Scarlet Street. “I was on drugs and having fun in a way that was totally incompatible with a family-oriented studio. I accepted it. I accepted the fact that my career was ruined by my behavior and by no one and nothing else.
Mr. Kirk was born December 10, 1941 in Louisville, Ky. His parents moved the family to California in 1944 so that his father could work in an aircraft factory during the boom years of World War II.
Despite his problems while under contract with Disney, Mr. Kirk had fond memories of Walt Disney himself which he often recounted. Still a child actor, he met him in a hotel in Beverly Hills.
“He was with Hedda Hopper, the legendary columnist,” Kirk told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991. “He put his arm around me and he said to Hedda Hopper, ‘This is my lucky item. I never forgot that.
Information on his survivors was not immediately available.
Mrs. Washburn, his “Old Yeller” co-star, who lived near him in Las Vegas, saw him often. He always brought a box of chocolates when he came to dinner, she said. And they worked together at autograph conventions. She recalled that whenever someone in uniform – police, military or otherwise – came to buy an autograph, Mr. Kirk would refuse his money.
“He would always say, ‘These are our heroes, and I will always give them a free photo,'” she said.
Ms Washburn recalled an appearance with Mr Kirk in which she mentioned the two were friends and a puzzled girl in the crowd showed up.
“He was the one who shot Old Yeller,” said the young girl. “How can you still be friends with him?” “