Tommy Kirk

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Tommy Kirk
Tommy Kirk & Sandra Dee.jpg
Tommy Kirk and Sandra Dee on the set of The Snow Queen
BornThomas Lee Kirk
(1941-12-10) December 10, 1941 (age 72)
Louisville, Kentucky, USA
OccupationActor/businessman
Years active1955–2001
Spouse(s)Never married
ParentsLouis and Lucy Kirk
 
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For the Australian rugby league player, see Tommy Kirk (rugby league).
Tommy Kirk
Tommy Kirk & Sandra Dee.jpg
Tommy Kirk and Sandra Dee on the set of The Snow Queen
BornThomas Lee Kirk
(1941-12-10) December 10, 1941 (age 72)
Louisville, Kentucky, USA
OccupationActor/businessman
Years active1955–2001
Spouse(s)Never married
ParentsLouis and Lucy Kirk

Thomas Lee "Tommy" Kirk (born December 10, 1941) is a former American actor and later a businessman. He is best known for his performances in a number of highly popular movies made by Walt Disney Studios such as Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, as well as beach party movies of the mid 1960s.

Early career[edit]

Kirk was born in Louisville, Kentucky, 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 in Los Angeles County, California, when Kirk was fifteen months old.[1][2]

In 1954, Kirk accompanied his elder brother Joe to an audition for a production of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California. Joe was not cast, losing out to Bobby Driscoll, but Tommy was, and he made his stage debut opposite Will Rogers, Jr.[3] The performance was seen by an agent from the Gertz agency who signed Kirk and succeeded in casting him in an episode of TV Reader's Digest, "The Last of the Old Time Shooting Sheriffs".

Kirk began to work steadily in television: episodes of The Man Behind the Badge, Frontier, ("The Devil and Doctor O'Hara"), Letter to Loretta ("But for God's Grace", "Little League"), The Californians (as Billy Kilgore in "Little Lost Man"), Gunsmoke ("Cow Doctor"), Angel ("Goodbye, Young Lovers"), Big Town, and Matinee Theatre ("The Outing", "The Others"). Kirk also supported Angie Dickinson in a short feature called Down Liberty Road (aka Freedom Highway) (1956),[4] a short commercial travelogue produced by Greyhound Lines to promote their Scenicruiser buses. Of these experiences, Kirk especially liked working on Matinee Theatre:

I did thirty-seven of those in the next five years. I think I did more than any other actor. That was a fantastic training ground. They were hour-long shows, telecast live from coast to coast. I worked with some fascinating people—Sarah Churchill and others — and I started getting known.[5]

Disney[edit]

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.[6] The show and Kirk's performance were extremely well received and led to a long association between the actor and the studio.

In August Disney hired Kirk and former Mouseketeer Judy Harriet to attend both the Republican and Democratic presidential nominating conventions, for newsreel specials that later appeared on the show.[7] Kirk also hosted short travelogues for the serial segment of the show's second season. He did the voice-over narration for "The Eagle Hunters", and then co-hosted two more travelogues with Annette Funicello. Tommy also did voice-dubbing work for the Danish-made film Vesterhavsdrenge, shown on the Mickey Mouse Club as the serial "Boys of the Western Sea." Around this time it was announced Kirk would appear as Young Davy Crockett, but this does not seem to have eventuated.[8]

Film stardom[edit]

Tommy Kirk and Dorothy McGuire in trailer for "Old Yeller" (1957)

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.[9] 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.

Both Kirk and Corcoran were announced for the cast of Rainbow Road to Oz, a feature film based on the stories of L. Frank Baum, but this film was never produced.[10] Kirk appeared in another Hardy brothers installment, the original story The Mystery of Ghost Farm (September 13 - December 20, 1957).

He 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, and was even more popular than Old Yeller.

Kirk went over to Universal-International to do some voice work for the animated film, The Snow Queen (1959), originally in Russian but adapted for US release.

Kirk says at this stage 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.[11]

However, the studio soon contacted him 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.[12]

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.[13] Kirk:

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.[14]

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."[13]

Kirk also played Grumio in the fairy tale fantasy Babes in Toyland which he later described as "sort of a klunker... but it has a few cute moments, it's an oddity", and enjoyed working with Ed Wynn.[15] He had a small role in Moon Pilot (1962) and teamed with Funicello for two stories shot overseas which screened in the US on TV but were released in some countries theatrically: The Horsemasters (1961) and Escapade in Florence (1962). Newspaper columns occasionally linked Kirk and Funicello's names romantically.[16] Kirk always spoke highly of her:

A perfect lady, perfect manners, very careful about her career, a very cool-headed businesswoman, friendly. We've always been friendly, but never been friends... But nobody can fault her, she's always friendly and gracious to everybody. People say bad things about everybody in this business, but I don't know anybody who ever said anything bad about her.[14]

Kirk was given the lead in Savage Sam (1963), a follow up to Old Yeller which did not do as well at the box office. However, when he played "scrambled egghead" student inventor Merlin Jones in The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964), it resulted in one of the biggest hits of the year.

Leaving Disney[edit]

Tommy Kirk in trailer for Pajama Party (1964)

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. It was very hard to meet people and, at that time, there was no place to go to socialize. It wasn't until the early '60s that I began to hear of places where gays congregated. The lifestyle was not recognized and I was very, very lonely. Oh, I had some brief, very passionate encounters and as a teenager I had some affairs, but they were always stolen, back alley kind of things. They were desperate and miserable. 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.[17]

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.[18] Walt Disney himself fired Kirk after receiving a complaint from the boy's mother.[19] Kirk describes the situation himself: "Even more than MGM, Disney was the most conservative studio in town.... The studio executives were beginning to suspect my homosexuality. Certain people were growing less and less friendly. In 1963, Disney let me go. But Walt asked me to return for the final Merlin Jones movie, The Monkey's Uncle, because the Jones films had been moneymakers for the studio." [20]

The news was not made public and Kirk soon found a home for himself at AIP who were looking for a leading man to co-star with Funicello in a musical they were preparing, The Maid and the Martian; Kirk was cast as a Martian who arrives on Earth and falls in with a bunch of partying teenagers. The movie was later retitled Pajama Party and was a hit, so AIP signed him to star in a follow-up, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. In the meantime 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 it seemed his career was in good shape.

Decline[edit]

On Christmas Eve 1964 Kirk was arrested for possession of marijuana.[citation needed] Although the charges were later dropped,[21] Kirk was replaced on Wild Bikini by Dwayne Hickman and on Katie Elder by Michael Anderson, Jr..

"This town is full of right-wingers—the world is full of right-wingers—intolerant, cruel sons-of-bitches," said Kirk later.[5] But he later admitted that he "richly deserved to be fired from the studios because of my irresponsibility. A person on drugs is not fit for work.".[12]

However for the moment Kirk could still get work. He appeared in Village of the Giants, which he later described as "kind of a crazy movie, but the production values are pretty good and it sort of holds together. I could have done without the dancing ducks, though.".[17]

In late 1965 it was announced Kirk had signed a four-picture contract with Executive Pictures Corp, but only one movie resulted, the beach movie/crime comedy Catalina Caper (1967).[22] Along with Village of the Giants this was eventually lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The Monkey's Uncle came out and was almost as successful as Merlin Jones. AIP cast him in The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966) with Deborah Walley, with whom he was then reteamed on It's a Bikini World. Also for AIP he appeared in a TV special, The Wild Weird World of Dr. Goldfoot.

The release of Bikini World and Catalina Caper was held up for a number of months and Kirk's career was losing momentum. Kirk:

After I was fired from Disney, I did some of the worst movies ever made and I got involved with a manager who said it didn’t matter what you did as long as you kept working. He put me in every piece of shit that anybody offered. I did a series of terrible things, but it was only to get the money.[17]

Kirk did not criticize the AIP films which he described as "cute, lightweight screwball comedies, but their production values are high. I'm not ashamed of those, but I did some other movies that you wouldn't believe. My manager said just take it, whatever it is, just take it, or they'll forget you."[17]

Among those were two films he made for Texan director Larry Buchanan: Mars Needs Women, where he costarred with "Batgirl" Yvonne Craig, and It's Alive!. Kirk:

What I was doing in those pictures, I don't know. The only thing I can say is that I had a drug problem then, and I didn't know what I was doing, or what I was getting into. I was an idiot. Buchanan's like a cinematic serial killer, and he's got to be stopped before he kills again... But I'd also like to add that personally, Larry Buchanan was one of the nicest, most gracious men I ever work for. He paid me well, he was generous, and he was decent."[23]

Kirk's acting career tapered off during the 1960s, hampered by the transition to adulthood, drug use, and "personal problems."[13]

I was drinking, taking pills and smoking grass. In fact, I was pretty wild. I came into a whole lot of money, but I threw a lot of parties and spent it all. I wound up completely broke. I had no self-discipline and I almost died of a drug overdose a couple of times. It's a miracle that I'm still around. All of that didn't help the situation. Nobody would touch me; I was considered box office poison.[17]

Kirk says by the time of Track of Thunder he was so into drugs "I was about half awake in that film. I just sort of walked through it and took the money."[14]

Kirk says he reached bottom in 1970 when he did two movies that were non-Screen Actors Guild, Ride the Hot Wind and Blood of Ghastly Horror, causing Kirk to almost lose his SAG card. "Finally, I said, to hell with the whole thing, to hell with show business, I"m gonna make a new life for myself, and I got off drugs, completely kicked all that stuff."[12]

Kirk publicly came out as gay in a 1973 interview with Marvin Jones. At the time he was studying acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, while working as a busboy in a Los Angeles restaurant.

Retirement[edit]

Kirk at the 2009 Disney D23 Expo

Kirk got over his drug addiction and gave up acting in the mid-1970s. He worked as a waiter and a chauffeur before going into the carpet-cleaning business in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, an operation which he ran for twenty years. In 1990 he said:

I made a lot of money and I spent it all. No bitterness. No regrets. I did what I did... I wasn't the boy next door anymore. I could pretend to be for a few hours a day in front of the camera. But I couldn't live it. I'm human. I'm not Francis of Assisi.[2]

He continued to act occasionally, however, including in the R-rated spoof Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold. As of 2006, Kirk had more than thirty feature film roles to his credit. He also enjoyed writing.

I don't blame anybody but myself and my drug abuse for my career going haywire. I'm not ashamed of being gay, never have been, and never will be. For that I make no apologies. I have no animosity toward anybody because the truth is, I wrecked my own career.[14]

Disney legend[edit]

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.[24]

Filmography[edit]

Features
Short Subjects

Television credits[edit]

Unmade films[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Freida Zylstra, 'Actor Tommy Kirk Tries His Hand in Kitchen', Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963) [Chicago, Illinois] 18 Jan 1963: b7.
  2. ^ a b Disney kid Tommy Kirk a cheerful has-been at 48 Edwards, Don. Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) [Chicago, Ill] 06 Nov 1990: N_B7.
  3. ^ 'Will Rogers, Jr. Makes Auspicious Stage Debut', Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 21 Aug 1954: 13.
  4. ^ Archive.org
  5. ^ a b Jones interview
  6. ^ "TV - 1955 / 57 Disney Serials". Hardy-Boys.com. Retrieved 2006-12-21. 
  7. ^ Southland Girl, 13, Boy, 14, Cover Parley for Newsreel, A Times Staff Representative. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 17 Aug 1956: C2.
  8. ^ Hedda Hopper, 'Looking at Hollywood: Top Role in War Film Goes to Paul Newman', Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963) [Chicago, Ill] 23 Aug 1956: c2.
  9. ^ Hedda Hopper, 'Solid Acting Found on 'Old Yeller' Set', Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 23 Apr 1957: C6.
  10. ^ 'Movie Producers Crashing Broadway', The Washington Post and Times Herald (1954-1959) [Washington, D.C] 03 Sep 1957: B8.
  11. ^ Bob Thomas, "Tommy Grows Up", Toledo Blade, 29 June 1962 accessed 2 August 2012
  12. ^ a b c Minton p 69
  13. ^ a b c "Tommy Kirk (Television & Film)". Disney Legends. The Walt Disney Company. October 2006. Retrieved 2006-12-21. 
  14. ^ a b c d Minton p 71
  15. ^ Minton p70
  16. ^ 'Soraya Is Denying Marriage Plans', The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973) [Washington, D.C] 06 Nov 1963: D14.
  17. ^ a b c d e Minton p 68
  18. ^ Originalmmc.com
  19. ^ "Tommy Kirk". tcm.com. Retrieved November 12, 2010. 
  20. ^ "Imdb bio". 
  21. ^ 'Tommy Kirk Cleared of Drug Charge', Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 05 Jan 1965: b6.
  22. ^ Betty Martin, 'Franciosa Set for 'Swinger', Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 18 Dec 1965: a12.
  23. ^ Minton p 70
  24. ^ "Sir Elton John, Joe Ranft Headline Disney Legends Award". AWN Headline News (AWN Inc.). 2006-10-09. Retrieved 2006-10-10. 
  25. ^ Franciosa Set for 'Swinger' Martin, Betty. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 18 Dec 1965: a12

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]