Tommy Kirk and Disney

Tommy Kirk and Disney

Thomas Lee "Tommy" Kirk was born in Louisville, Kentucky on December 10, 1941, one of four sons. His father was a mechanic who worked for the Highway Department; his mother, a legal secretary. Looking for better job opportunities, they moved to Downey, California, when Kirk was fifteen months old.

In 1954, Kirk accompanied his elder brother Joe to an audition for a production at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California. Joe was not cast but Tommy was, and he made his stage debut, the performance was seen by an agent from the Gertz agency who signed Kirk.

Kirk began to work steadily in television throughout 1956 and 1957. But Kirk especially liked working on Matinee Theatre.

In April 1956, Kirk auditioned for the part of Joe Hardy for The Mickey Mouse Club serial "The Hardy Boys: The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure". He was successful and was selected to co-star with Tim Considine. The show was filmed in June and early July 1956, and broadcast that October, at the start of the show's second season. The show and Kirk's performance were extremely well received and led to a long association between the actor and the studio.

Kirk's career received its biggest break yet when in January 1957 Disney cast him as Travis Coates in Old Yeller (1957), an adventure story about a boy and his heroic dog.

Kirk had the lead role in the film, which was enormously successful, and he became Disney's first choice whenever they needed someone to play an all-American teenager. Kevin Corcoran played his younger brother and the two of them would often be teamed.

Kirk appeared in another Hardy brother’s installment, the original story The Mystery of Ghost Farm (September 13 – December 20, 1957).

Kirk then starred in The Shaggy Dog (1959), a comedy about a boy inventor, Wilby Daniels, who is repeatedly transformed into an Old English Sheepdog under the influence of a magic ring. This teamed him with Corcoran and two other Disney stars with whom he would regularly work, Fred MacMurray and Annette Funicello'. Kirk says when filming finished, Disney told him they did not have any projects for him and he was being dropped.

"I was thin and gangly and looked a mess... I thought the whole world had fallen to pieces," he said.

Shaggy Dog turned out to be a massive hit - bigger than Old Yeller and Disney soon contacted Kirk offering him another long-term contract and a role as middle son Ernst Robinson in another adventure film, Swiss Family Robinson (1960). This was another box office hit, and it remains Kirk's favorite movie.


He followed up with three highly successful comedies where he supported Fred MacMurray: The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), Bon Voyage (1962), and Son of Flubber (1963). MacMurray once reportedly gave Kirk "the biggest dressing-down of my life" during the filming of Bon Voyage! one that Kirk says he deserved.

I really liked him very much but the feeling wasn't mutual. That hurt me a lot and for a long time I hated him. It's hard not to hate somebody who doesn't like you. I was sort of looking for a father figure and I pushed him too hard. He resented it and I guess I was pretty repellent to him, so we didn't get along. We had a couple of blow ups on set... He was a nice person, but I was just too demanding. I came on too strong because I desperately wanted to be his friend.

But Kirk maintained good relationships with other actors he worked with. "Tommy played my brother in a lot of films and put up with a lot of things that I did to him over the years," Corcoran says in a commentary on the DVD release of Old Yeller. "He must be a great person not to hate me." Tim Considine calls Kirk "a monster talent."

Kirk was given the lead in Disney's Savage Sam (1963), a follow up to Old Yeller with Corcoran and Brian Keith which did not do as well at the box office.

Disney then cast Kirk as "scrambled egghead" student inventor Merlin Jones in The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964), opposite Funicello.

It became an unexpected box office sensation and was one of the biggest hits of the year.

Kirk said he knew he was gay from an early age:

I consider my teenage years as being desperately unhappy. I knew I was gay, but I had no outlet for my feelings. When I was about 17 or 18 years old, I finally admitted to myself that I wasn't going to change. I didn't know what the consequences would be, but I had the definite feeling that it was going to wreck my Disney career and maybe my whole acting career. It was all going to come to an end.

While filming The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, Kirk started seeing a 15-year-old boy he had met at a local swimming pool. The boy's mother discovered the affair and informed Disney, who elected not to renew Kirk's contract. Kirk was 21 years old. Walt Disney himself fired Kirk after receiving a complaint from the boy's mother. Ironically, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones had become an unexpected smash hit, earning $4 million in rentals in North America and Disney invited him back to make a sequel, The Monkey's Uncle (1965). He was also cast in a John Wayne film, The Sons of Katie Elder, and now it seemed his career was in good shape.

 On Christmas Eve 1964 Kirk was arrested for possession of marijuana. Although the charges were later dropped on a technicality in January 1965, Kirk was replaced on Katie Elder by Michael Anderson, Jr. The Monkey's Uncle came out and was almost as successful as Merlin Jones. Unfortunately, Kirk would not work for Disney again.

Tommy Kirk was inducted as a Disney Legend on October 9, 2006, alongside his former co-stars Tim Considine and Kevin Corcoran. His other repeat co-stars, Annette Funicello and Fred MacMurray, had already been inducted (in 1992 and 1987, respectively). Also in 2006, the first of Kirk's Hardy Boys serials was issued on DVD in the fifth "wave" of the Walt Disney Treasures series.

Where are they now!

A full-time commitment to acting is quite unlikely but he has done several documentary interviews for the DVD releases of some of his best-known films and TV shows and occasionally appears at film festivals and nostalgia convention/memorabilia fests.

Last, we heard he owns a carpet cleaning business and lives in Las Vegas.

 Don't miss our "All Things Disney" section!

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