Tommy Kirk has passed away. He was an actor most well-known for his roles in Disney's 1950s and 1960s, including the starring roles in Old Yeller and The Shaggy Dog. His career was halted in the mid-1960s when he developed a drug addiction. This issue was highlighted by a high profile arrest in 1964. The fact that the conservative studios had already realized that Kirk was gay probably did not help. He was a star in many of the most successful films of his time for Disney, as well as a series of AIP beach-party films that featured Annette Funicello. In 2006, he was named a Disney Legend. Variety reports that Kirk was found dead at his Las Vegas residence on Tuesday. He was 79.
Kirk, like many other actors his age, started his acting career on TV Westerns. He was just 15 when he appeared on TVs Readers Digest and Frontier. In 1956, Disney cast him in the role of Joe Hardy, a teen sleuth. Kirk and his boy-next door charms would continue to work for the studio throughout the decade. Later, he recounted an anecdote about Walt Disney calling him his good luck charm because of his many cinematic successes. Kirk's most memorable film was 1957's Old Yeller. Kirk, as Travis Coates was the film's central point. He brought his pet dog out of misery in the films unforgettable tear-jerker finale. Kirk's role as Disney's top teen movie star began with that same film. He starred in The Shaggy Dog and The Absent-Minded Professor. His roles also included Son Of Flubber and Swiss Family Robinson. Kirk often starred opposite Fred MacMurray and Funicello.
The Misadventures of Merlin Jones was being filmed in 1963. Disney declined to renew Kirk's contract after Kirk's relationship with a mother of a 15 year old reported Kirk to them. Jones was so successful that Disney invited him back to film a sequel in 1965. Kirk's lucrative beach-party movies with AIP (which began with The Maid And The Martian/Pajama Party) in 1964 were canceled when he was charged with marijuana possession. There are also reports that he had a stash of barbiturates in his car, which was circulating free from studio control. Kirk was able to recast several of his movies and began working on lower-budget films, including the sets of Larry Buchanan, self-described schlockmeister.
Kirk later stated that he was not bitter about his treatment. He called himself and his addictions the reason for his acting downfall. In the 1970s, he reportedly recovered from his drug addictions and came out as gay. He eventually retired from acting. His last role was in a 2001 horror movie, which was one of six acting roles he held from 1975 to 2000. Disney recalled Kirk's interview for a publication that will celebrate the creation of Swiss Family Robinson in 1960. The acceptance speech he gave in 2006 for Disney Legends was also included. He stated that he wanted to be remembered for his Disney work like Old Yeller and Swiss Family Robinson.