RIP Tommy Kirk (1941-2021)

All true Disney fans know Tommy Kirk. When the studio first got into live-action films, he became one of their biggest stars. He was in movies that are still considered among the best live-action features Disney has ever done and he probably represents the live-action golden age of Disney to many fans. His screen persona was ideal for Disney as he excelled at playing the coming-of-age youth in both dramas and comedies. Unfortunately, at the height of his career, Disney fired him due to his personal life and his movie career never recovered. It is tragic that Kirk had to come from a less tolerant era, but he has remained in the hearts of Disney fans over the years.

The Mickey Mouse Club

Kirk got his start playing himself on TV’s The Mickey Mouse Club although Kirk only appeared in 10 episodes of that nostalgic Disney show. Fellow future co-stars Annette Funicello, Tim Considine, and Kevin Corcoran also were featured in the show. He also got his first role not playing himself in a 1955 TV Reader’s Digest production of “The Last of the Old Time Shooting Sheriffs.” Kirk’s earliest works were mostly on TV including in episodes of Frontier and Gunsmoke. He also was in two episodes of The Loretta Young Show and Kirk spoke fondly of Young in his later years.

The Hardy Boys

Perhaps his most notable TV outing, however, was playing Joe Hardy in two TV productions of The Hardy Boys alongside Tom Considine (who believed Kirk was an extremely talented actor) as Frank Hardy. Kirk received praise for his performance as Joe and it led to some film work including doing the lead voice work in the English dub of The Snow Queen (1957) opposite Sandra Dee’s voice and, most notably, the lead role in Disney’s classic Old Yeller (1957).

Old Yeller (1957)

Old Yeller is still seen as one of Disney’s best live-action features. It’s variety of emotions from childhood bliss to tragic drama make it a family classic and Kirk’s performance is at the center of it all. Kirk delivers a terrific performance, and it also marked the first time he played the older brother of common co-star Kevin Corcoran. Kirk and Corcoran reprised their roles as Travis and Arliss for the more action-oriented sequel Savage Sam (1963).

The Shaggy Dog (1959)

Kirk then went on to star in another famous movie, the oddball fantasy family comedy The Shaggy Dog (1959). Kirk played Wilby Daniels in the film, a teenager who keeps turning into a shaggy dog which causes lots of shenanigans (especially since Fred MacMurray as his father hates dogs). Kevin Corcoran once again played Kirk’s brother, Moochie Daniels. While MacMurray is able to take-on any comedy thrown his way (even one about a boy turning into a dog), Kirk and Corcoran definitely shine and manage to be memorable even next to MacMurray’s very funny performance.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960)

Kirk’s star power became more and more evident. He is as likable as ever in Disney’s 1960 version of Swiss Family Robinson which Kirk referred to as his favorite film he made. The movie is fun from start to finish and is a great example of the kind of movie I wish Disney made more of these days. Kirk also managed to steal The Absent Minded Professor (1961) along with Keenan Wynn. Wynn plays the film’s enemy while Kirk plays Wynn’s dumb but generally harmless son. Kirk continued being a regular in Disney’s live-action projects including Babes in Toyland (1961), Moon Pilot (1962), Bon Voyage! (1962), and Son of Flubber (1963).

The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964)

Kirk then made the sleeper hit The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964) as the title character. Kirk plays a genius college student whose inventions get him and girlfriend Annette Funicello into shenanigans. The film is definitely goofy (and clearly meant to originally be made into a TV show that was edited into a movie instead), but both Kirk and Funicello make the results likable. No offense to Frankie Avalon, but I always felt Annette was best-paired with Kirk. Unfortunately, at this time Disney found out about Kirk’s sexual orientation when the parents of a lover of his spilled the beans to the studio. This resulted in Kirk getting fired by Disney. Disney did, however, use Kirk for one more movie: The Monkey’s Uncle (1965). The movie was a sequel to Merlin Jones which the studio pumped out after the previous film was a surprising box office hit. Despite Disney having a good thing going with Kirk and a potential series of movies lined up, they never used Kirk again (although he was named a Disney Legend later on). If Disney’s actions towards Kirk due to his sexuality seem insensitive and gross, that’s because they are and Disney being Disney, they never seemed to have acknowledged the injustice they dealt Kirk.

Pajama Party (1964)

Kirk then appeared in some AIP movies including some Beach movies like Pajama Party (1964) with Annette Funicello. Unsurprisingly, Kirk spoke fondly of Funicello stating that she was always kind and friendly towards him and that he never heard a bad word said against her. Pajama Party is sometimes considered one of the worst Beach movies (which is saying something), although it is because it is more stupid that I find it more enjoyable than some of the other Beach movie outings (albeit for the wrong reasons). Sometimes worse is better than mediocre, but that is not the case with the truly bad The Ghost and the Invisible Bikini (1966) although fellow Disney alum and Kirk’s former co-star Deborah Walley acted opposite Kirk in it. Kirk also starred in Village of the Giants (1965) which is known to fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (which means I’ve seen it more times than I have Kirk’s good movies due to being the total MSTie I am).

Catalina Caper (1967)

While Kirk’s AIP movies were not objectively good movies, Kirk didn’t mind making them and didn’t seem embarrassed by them. Kirk’s career actually seemed to be heading in a good direction as he was even supposed to play one of the title characters in The Sons of Katie Elder (1965). Kirk, however, was arrested for attending a party that contained marijuana which led to John Wayne firing him and replacing him with Michael Anderson Jr. It is a shame because after that, Kirk appeared in some movies that made his AIP endeavors seem good. This included the abysmal It’s a Bikini World (1967) opposite Deborah Walley again and another Mystery Science Theater 3000 classic, Catalina Caper (1967). It didn’t get better from there as Kirk appeared in bad movie after bad movie because he was convinced by his agent he just needed to work no matter the quality of what he was doing.

In his later years, Kirk would attend conventions and connect with fans. He would speak about his thoughts on the film industry and his past. He spoke about how he perceived Fred MacMurray as a potential father-figure despite the fact that MacMurray clearly didn’t want to fill that role leading to MacMurray resenting Kirk’s admiration. All of these stories leave behind an impression of a generally sad life in fame. Kirk spoke about how his gay affairs made him miserable and how he fought with drug addiction which almost led to his death of overdose a number of times. Despite this, Kirk ended up kicking his drug habit and became successful as a business owner with his own carpet and upholstery cleaning company. He also had said that he wasn’t ashamed to be gay and accepted his sexuality. While Kirk could have died a horrible death, it is comforting to know he overcame his troubles and died of natural causes on September 28, 2021. While Kirk unfortunately had a troubled childhood and adolescence, I think it is safe to state that he made all of our youths fonder with his work. We cried with him in Old Yeller and we laughed with him as Merlin Jones. I’m glad he was able to live his life successfully even if it wasn’t in show business.

~Virginia

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