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Obituary: Tommy Kirk, Disney child star whose career was derailed by drug issues

Died: September 28, 2021.

TOMMY KIRK, who has died aged 79, was a Walt Disney child star who appeared in one of family cinema’s most tear-jerking scenes. In the 1957 coming-of-age movie Old Yeller, he played Travis Coates, a rancher’s son who bravely volunteers to shoot the beloved dog he has taken in as a stray when it contracts rabies. “No, Mama, he’s my dog,” he tells Dorothy McGuire in the final scene. “I’ll do it.”

Humour replaced heartache when Kirk consolidated his screen persona as the “all-American boy” by starring two years later in The Shaggy Dog as a young inventor. Comedy came out of the premise of an enchanted ring of the Borgias transforming him into an old English sheepdog.

The film was the year’s second-highest-grossing at the American box office – beaten only by Ben-Hur and ahead of Some Like It Hot – and

was Disney’s most profitable movie of the 1950s, encouraging it to continue making live-action comedies.

The studio then cast Kirk as Ernst, the middle of John Mills and Dorothy McGuire’s three sons, in Swiss Family Robinson (1960). The adventure about a shipwrecked family was the movie of which he was most proud.

He played a science student of Fred MacMurray’s college-lecturer inventor in The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and its sequel, Son Of Flubber (1963).

But, while filming the family comedy Bon Voyage! (1962) with MacMurray acting his father, the Hollywood stalwart gave him what Kirk described as “the biggest dressing-down of my life” for his behaviour on set. He said he was “repellent” to MacMurray, ironically because he was looking for a father figure and “was just too demanding”.

He also said he “got to hate” Jane Wyman, playing his mother, and regarded her as “cold-hearted”, while she “went out of her way to be s****y”. Kirk added that he believed her to be homophobic.

It was while filming The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones (1964), starring as a genius student, that Kirk – in a big money-spinning movie at the height of his success

– was reported to Disney by a woman who said he had been having a relationship with her 15-year-old son.

Walt Disney personally fired him, keeping the details out of the public eye, but American International Pictures was quick to sign Kirk up to play a Martian invader in Pajama Party (1964), the fourth in the popular Beach Party movies aimed at a teen audience.

When Disney saw the potential for a Merlin Jones sequel, The Monkey’s Uncle (1965), following the success of the original, he was welcomed back to the fold to reprise his role in another box-office hit.

Then, on Christmas Eve 1964, after shooting had finished, police arrested Kirk at a Hollywood party on suspicion of marijuana possession. Although he was not prosecuted for that, they discovered barbiturates in his car but, when charged, he was found not guilty because the tablets were obtained on prescription.

Despite this, the publicity led him to be dropped from How To Stuff A Wild Bikini, another in the Beach Party series, as well as a role alongside John Wayne in The Sons Of Katie Elder (both 1965).

Kirk managed a return, at the top of the cast, for The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966), with one critic describing him as “cute and perky”, but he did have drink and drugs problems, and his career never fully recovered.

In the mid-1970s, after kicking his habits, and publicly coming out as gay, he left showbusiness to run his own carpet-cleaning and furniture upholstery business, although he made a few screen cameo appearances in later years.

Thomas Harvey Kirk was the second of four sons born to Lucy (nee Day), a legal secretary, and Louis Kirk, a mechanic with the highways department, in Louisville, Kentucky. He was only 15 months old when the family moved to Downey, California, and his father took a job in an aeroplane factory during the Second World War.

At the age of 12, he tagged along when his brother Joe unsuccessfully auditioned for a role in the Eugene O’Neill play Ah, Wilderness! at the Pasadena Playhouse: Kirk landed a small part himself as his namesake, Tommy.

When an agent spotted him, he was cast in The Last Of The Shooting Sheriffs episode of the TV Reader’s Digest anthology drama series.

His big break came when Disney auditioned him for Young Davy Crockett, a serial for The Mickey Mouse Club show, but it was never made. Instead, he was cast as Joe, the younger brother, in The Hardy Boys, which followed the adventures of the pair of young sleuths through two serials (1956-57).

In his string of Disney films, one of the few misses was Savage Sam (1963), the sequel to Old Yeller.

His fondest memory was bumping into Walt Disney, who was with an actor-cum-gossip columnist at a Beverly Hills hotel. “He put his arm around me,” recalled Kirk, “and he said, ‘This is my good-luck piece here,’ to Hedda Hopper. I never forgot that. That’s the nicest compliment he ever gave me.”

But he acknowledged his own part in his downfall. “I don’t blame anybody but myself and my drug abuse for my career going haywire,” he said in 1990.

After running Tommy Kirk’s Carpet and Upholstery for 20 years, he retired, although made a screen comeback with small roles in several low-budget films, such as Attack Of the 60 Foot Centerfolds (1995) and The Education Of A Vampire (2001).

ANTHONY HAYWARD



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