Tommy Kirk, one of Disney’s top young stars of the 1950s and early 1960s with performances in generational touchstone films such as Screaming old man, The shaggy dog, and Son of Flubber, died yesterday at his home in Las Vegas, Nevada. He was 79 years old.
His death was announced on Facebook by his friend and fellow child star Paul Petersen.
“My friend of many decades, Tommy Kirk, was found dead last night,” wrote Petersen, who has long been an advocate for child actors through his organization A Minor Consideration, adding: “Tommy was intensely reserved. He lived alone in Las Vegas, close to his friend … and “Ol Yeller” co-star Bev Washburn … and she was the one who called me this morning. Tommy was gay and estranged from what was left of his blood family. At A Minor Consideration, we are Tommy’s family. No apologies. We will take care of this. “
Kirk said in a 1993 interview with Filmfax magazine writer Kevin Minton that he realized he was gay at 17 or 18, and that his sexual orientation nearly destroyed his career. “Disney was a family movie studio and I was supposed to be its young lead. After they found out he was involved with someone, that was the end of Disney.
“I consider my teenage years to be desperately unhappy,” Kirk added in the interview. “I knew I was gay, but I had no outlet for my feelings. It was very difficult meeting people, and at the time, there was nowhere to go to socialize. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that I began to hear about places where homosexuals congregated. The lifestyle was not recognized and he was very, very lonely. Oh, I had some brief, very passionate encounters and when I was a teenager I had some adventures, but they were always stolen from me, in a dead end. They were desperate and miserable.
“When I was about 17 or 18 years old,” he continued, “I finally admitted to myself that I wasn’t going to change. I didn’t know what the consequences would be, but I had a definite feeling that it would ruin my Disney career and maybe my entire acting career. Everything was going to come to an end. “
Although he left Disney’s youth films behind in the mid-1960s, pursuing leading roles in Swiss Robinson family (1960), The distracted teacher (1961), Girls in Toyland (1961), Moon pilot (1962), Good trip! (1962), Savage sam (a Screaming old man sequel in 1963), The misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964) and Monkey uncle (1965) – Kirk appeared in a series of popular beach party movies of the decade. He played a Martian in the 1964 feature film. Slumber party, and also starred The ghost of the invisible bikini (1966) and It’s a bikini world (1967).
In addition to beach movies, Kirk appeared in several low-budget sci-fi movies that went from self-service to cult classics lists, including 1965 campy. Village of the Giants, opposite Beau Bridges and Ron Howard, in 1968, Mars needs women. He would go on to make sporadic appearances throughout the 1990s and early 2000s in films such as Billy Frankenstein (1998) and The education of a vampire (2001).
Born in Lexington, Kentucky, Kirk had not yet reached his second birthday when he and his family moved to Downey, California, and at age 13 he accompanied his brother, Joe, to an audition for Eugene O’Neill’s. Ah, dessert! at the Pasadena Playhouse. Joe lost the role to a young actor named Bobby Driscoll (who would become a Disney star himself, voicing the title character of Peter Pan, before letting him go through the study. He died in 1968 at age 31 after years of drug abuse.)
The popular series with buried treasure, mysterious clues, and skeletons, remembered by countless Baby Boomers for its spooky theme song “Gold Doubloons and Pieces Of Eight”, appeared in 19 episodes in its first year on Mickey Mouse Club in 1956, and returned for a second series the following year.
In an obituary Written and published by the Disney studio today, Considine said of Kirk: “He was one of the most talented people I have ever worked with. Terribly talented. A friend of mine who was a casting director told me that when Tommy Kirk came to audition, he had never seen a child actor as good as him, especially since he could instantly cry at the right time. He was a great talent and it was a privilege to work with him and call him a friend ”.
Both Kirk and Considine were named by the studio as Disney Legends in 2006, an honor given to people in recognition of their extraordinary contributions to The Walt Disney Company. At the Disney Legends Awards ceremony, Kirk said, “I want to be remembered for my work at Disney, as Swiss Robinson family and Screaming old man. “He recalled a childhood encounter with Walt Disney, noting that the famous head of the studio was with gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.” He put his arm around me and said to Hedda Hopper, ‘This is my piece of good luck.’ I never forgot. That’s the best compliment he’s ever paid me. ”
Kirk’s most enduring contribution to Disney, and to his peers in the fledgling youth culture of the 1950s, was certainly as the child star of the Screaming old man, also with Dorothy McGuire and Fess Parker. Set in post-Civil War Texas, the film, based on a popular and acclaimed novel, focused on Kirk’s Travis Coates, a boy who adopts the title character, a mischievous but always loyal stray dog. Like disney Bambi before that, Screaming old man included a heartbreaking scene that would be etched into the psyche of children across the country: when Screaming old man becomes infected with rage, a sobbing Travis, with courage and compassion, shoots and kills the dog.
The screaming old man was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2019.
In the study’s obituary, film historian Leonard Maltin said: “One of the reasons people remember Screaming old man It is not just the fate of a beloved dog, but the devastating pain expressed by its owner, so beautifully portrayed by Tommy. I think his talent and rank as an actor were taken for granted in a way. It was really very versatile. ”
Mouseketeers Tommy Cole and Bobby Burgess are also cited in the study states.
“Tommy and I made friends and even dated twice when we were kids,” Cole said. “For me, he was a Disney icon.” Burgess added: “When Tommy was filming Screaming old man, went to school on the lot with us Mouseketeers. I remember our teacher asked us what language we would like to learn. We all chose Spanish except Tommy, who wanted to learn German, and he actually did! ”
Kirk generally quit acting in the 1970s, but years later he would continue to meet fans at nostalgia conventions. According to Disney, he was interviewed several months ago for an upcoming book about making Swiss Robinson, family.
In its Facebook post, Petersen, who starred in the 1958-66 family comedy The Donna Reed Show, writes that his longtime friend was not bitter about his shortened career and that he found comfort in his church. “Please know that Tommy Kirk loved you, his fans,” writes Petersen. “He got it up when an industry let him down in 1965.”