'Old Yeller' Star, Disney Legend Tommy Kirk Dies at 79
Tommy Kirk, star of Disney's enormously popular — and punishingly sad — family film "Old Yeller," has died at 79.
TMZ reports the actor was found dead in his Las Vegas home Tuesday evening, and that no foul play is suspected.
Kirk was born December 10, 1941, in Louisville, Kentucky, but his family quickly moved to L.A. He famously got his big break when he tried out for a part in a play at the Pasadena Playhouse and got it when nobody else went after the role. That performance led to an agent signing the young actor, who made his TV debut on an episode of "TV Reader's Digest" in 1955.
His career quickly took off, with Kirk making regular appearances on such TV shows as "Frontier" (1956), "Crossroads" (1956), "Gunsmoke" (1956), "The Loretta Young Show" (1956), and "Matinee Theater" (over 30 parts between 1956 and 1958).
For nearly 30 episodes, he played Joe Hardy on a serialized version of "The Hardy Boys" as part of "The Mickey Mouse Club" (1956-1957), which cemented an association with Disney that led to his classic performance as Travis Coates in the tear-jerking Disney feature "Old Yeller" (1957).
Continuing with Disney, Kirk starred in "The Shaggy Dog" (1959) with frequent co-stars Annette Funicello and Fred MacMurray. Dropped by the studio and then re-upped once "The Shaggy Dog" became a blockbuster, Kirk appeared in two more all-time favorites, "Swiss Family Robinson" (1960) and "The Absent-Minded Professor" (1961).
Despite some flops, Kirk bounced back with "Escapade in Florence," a 1962 Disney TV movie with Annette Funicello that played in cinemas outside the U.S. One of its other stars, Nino Castelnuovo, just died at 84 earlier this month. He also struck gold with Disney's "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones" (1964), by which time he was well-established as the go-to relatable teen.
Kirk's career came to a screeching halt when Walt Disney discovered Kirk was gay. The studio head was said to have personally fired the 21-year-old actor from his contract, though Kirk did appear in one last Disney flick, "The Monkey's Uncle" (1965).
He was saved because he was old enough to serve as a leading man in a series of AIP beach movies that were becoming hot commodities, including playing a Martian in the hit comedy "Pajama Party" (1964).
A drug arrest at the end of 1964 further curtailed career opportunities, and Kirk would later disparage some of his work after AIP's "The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini" (1966). He has said substance-abuse issues were behind some of the substandard work he took.
Once he got clean, Kirk came out as gay in 1973, virtually unheard of for a celebrity of any stature at the time, and worked only rarely as an actor after that, including appearing on an episode of "The Streets of San Francisco" (1973) and in a handful of low-profile features, the last of which was 2001's "The Education of a Vampire." He switched careers to carpet cleaning and was a frequent guest at autograph shows, where he offered candid remembrances of his long-ago career as the boy-next-door.
In 2006, decades after Walt Disney had cast him out of the kingdom for being gay, Kirk was inducted as a Disney Legend.