The story of Tommy Kirk

Tommy Kirk in “Old Yeller”

You may have seen him turning into a sheepdog on “The Shaggy Dog,” tragically killing his dog in “Old Yeller” or as the know-it-all brother in “Swiss Family Robinson.”

Life for fresh-faced, slightly goofy Tommy Kirk seemed sunny in those 1950s movies at Walt Disney Studios. He was one of the studio’s top stars and even was part of the Mickey Mouse Club in the “Hardy Boy” series with Tim Considine. He was wholesome, clean cut and quirky-things that easily won over Disney audiences.

But as Kirk grew out of those kid roles in the early 1960s, life started to drastically change. Like most child stars, the transition from family movies to teen movies can be difficult. Studios and audiences don’t like you because you aren’t as cute and are going through the awkward years of growing up. However, it’s harder for a child star when they are gay.

It was becoming apparent that adult Tommy Kirk was gay and this didn’t fit into Walt Disney’s family-friendly, perfect studio.

Tommy Kirk and Tim Considine in Mickey Mouse Club’s “Hardy Boys”

“Even more than MGM, Disney [in the early 1960s] was the most conservative studio in town. They were growing aware. They weren’t stupid. They could add two and two, and I think they were beginning to suspect my homosexuality,” Kirk said. “I noticed people in certain quarters were getting less and less friendly. In 1963 Disney didn’t renew my option and let me go. But Walt let me return to do the final Merlin Jones movie, ‘The Monkey’s Uncle,’ because those were moneymakers for the studio.” (Taken from IMDB)

Kirk said his teen years were a very unhappy time for him.  He had also been marked as box office poison after movies like “Village of Giants” (1965) and “Mars Needs Women” (1967).  Kirk’s career could have been saved by a potential role in “The Sons of Katie Elder” (1965) with John Wayne. Unfortunately, he went to a party where people were smoking marijuana. The party was busted, Kirk was arrested and newspapers printed “Ex- Disney Child Star Arrested for Pot.” He was fired from the film.

Not only was his career floundering, but once he accepted he was gay, he had no way to meet people or express himself.

“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,” Kirk said. “It wasn’t until the early sixties that I began to hear of places where gays congregated. 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.

Eventually, I became involved with somebody and I was fired. Disney was a family film studio and I was supposed to be their young, leading man. After they found out I was involved with someone, that was the end of Disney.” (Taken from IMDB)

Though Kirk’s acting career went into the mid and late 1960s when codes and morals were beginning to loosen, there was no way for him to portray a gay man on screen.

Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello. The two starred in several films together including “Pajama Party”

Quite on the opposite side, Kirk was in highly heterosexual all-American teenage romance beach films.  In “Pajama Party” (1964) with Annette Funicello, Kirk plays a Martian that doesn’t understand romance or how to woo women. Funicello’s character teaches the Martian-named Go Go- how to show affection in order to make her boyfriend jealous. Teaching Kirk how to romance a woman in a film almost makes me wonder if it was a jab at him.

Kirk quit acting by the early 1970s, saying that he got sick of it and stopped. He now runs a carpet and upholstery cleaning business, according to IMDB.

For a child star who struggled so much, Tommy Kirk is really forgotten today. Books like “Screen World Presents: Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors” mentions in the last few sentences about his career, “It was not until years later that Kirk was fired after word got out about his homosexuality.”

Other books like “Queering Teen Culture” by Jeffery Dennis don’t discuss the hurt or ruin that Kirk experienced. The book mainly seems to focus on the silly roles he was in and how overly sexual the males were in beach movies.

For somebody that stared in most of the live-action Disney classics, you don’t hear anything about him. I wonder if it has to do with Disney still trying to keep appearances.

From interviews I’ve seen in recent years, Tommy Kirk seems to be bitter from the experience. I can’t say that I blame him.

It’s heartbreaking that such a bright young Disney star fell down so hard.

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41 thoughts on “The story of Tommy Kirk

  1. Pingback: QUEER FILM BLOGATHON « Garbo Laughs

  2. This is heartbreaking. I remember Tommy Kirk from all those old Disney movies. He was always a sweet, gentle presence on film, without being annoyingly wholesome.

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    • I know it, it really makes me sad. I’ve always really enjoyed his movies. And you are right, he’s always sweet and funny and played well against Kevin Corcoran (usually played his little brothers in movies) and was so annoying! lol

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  3. Great discussion of Tommy Kirk’s conflict with Disney. I love him as an actor and I remember as a kid having a huge crush on him in Swiss Family Robinson. It’s really a shame that Disney was not more loyal to the stars who raked in so much dough for them. Thank you for contributing to the blogathon!

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    • Thanks! He was a really good actor and I think I had a crush on him too at one point (of course I always had the major hots for James MacArthur in Swiss Family Robinson 🙂 haha )

      It is a shame about Disney. Annette and Mousketeers had such a wonderful experience there but Tommy Kirk had such a different one.

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    • Tommy Kirk’s acting, especialy in “Pl’ Yeller” was great. His homosexuality had nothing to do with his acting ability. Of course back in the late 50’s and early 60’s, being gay was a death sentence for any actor who was outed. I’m not interestyed in his gay lifestyle, I just enjoyed the movies he made for Disney. And as I said, during the period of malimg “Ol’ Yeller:, being gay was a vdeat sentence for the actor AND a studio that hired a gay. I’m hetro, myself, but I liked his acting ability. I still watch re-runs of Disney movies with Tommy Kirk, and it doesn’t bother me that he’s gay. It’s the performance and his acting is what interested me.

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      • Tommy Kirk is certainly one of Disney’s best child actors. He did a great job in all of his films and made the studio a great deal of money.
        The post isn’t an attack on his acting ability at all, it is bringing attention to how Hollywood (specifically Walt Disney) treated homosexuals and how it could kill your career.
        Walt dropped Kirk’s contract when he became a teenager because of his sexual preference. Kirk was burned by Hollywood just because he wanted to be himself-something that people obviously weren’t always as free to do in the 1950s and 1960s like they are now. If someone came out wearing a meat dress like Lady Gaga, it would have ruined your career.
        The post was for a blogathon about homosexuality in films-how it is portrayed, how it helped/ruined actors careers, etc.
        Thank you for commenting.

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  4. It is a shame particularly given that TODAY Disney is MORE than understanding about homosexuality. However, that said, today Disney still isn’t that loyal to their big money makers.

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  5. Disney did honor Tommy Kirk as one of its “Disney Legends” in 2006. I’m thinking he was interviewed on one of the DVD releases of his Disney films (maybe SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON) and didn’t sound bitter toward Disney now. He was certainly a natural actor as a young teen, especially in OLD YELLER and SHAGGY DOG. I always enjoyed his performances.

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  6. I had a passing familiarity with Kirk’s homosexuality but I really like how you filled in a great deal of background and details in this piece. Susan’s observation of how the company eventually became more tolerant has me wondering if Kirk ever visits the theme park on the Gay Appreciation Days.

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    • Thanks 🙂 I actually found a good bit of it on IMDB, which was surprising. I was disappointed that I couldn’t find more books about it. However, I was only using Google books so maybe there have been some written about him that weren’t on there.

      Hm, good point about him attending Gay Appreciation Days. I honestly have no idea. I think I may sleuth around and see if I can find any old articles about it. If he was there, surely someone covered it.

      By the way, I really enjoyed your post on Caged! Such a good movie but so disturbing at parts!

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  7. Pingback: Blogathon Wrap-Up « Garbo Laughs

  8. What an interesting, but sad story. Hollywood seems to have a history of badly treating its popular actors who happen to be gay. William Haines was forced to quit his career at MGM in the 1930s after Louis Mayer made him choose between movies or his lover; Haines chose his lover and left MGM, after making a lot of money for the studio. It must have been doubly hard on Tommy Kirk, since he began acting as a child at Disney; it must have felt like such a betrayal to him. I wonder if things have changed all that much for actors today, though. Thanks for your post!

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    • Yes lots of actors had it rough. I do think being a child actor makes it harder too. You are already on your way out because you are getting older but then there is the double whamy of also being gay. Haines had it tough with MGM too, but it is encouraging that he went on and was successful with his interior decorating business. Thanks for reading 🙂

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  9. The way I understood it, he was not fired so much for being gay, he was fired because he was caught having sex with a 15 year old boy in the restroom of a public swimming pool in Burbank when he was like 23.

    Not exactly the wholesome image Disney was going for.

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    • I hadn’t heard that part, I only tried to add things that I could back up with sources since it is a touchy subject. Didn’t want to add too much hearsay. Thanks for stopping by!

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  10. I too used to watch Tommy, and until recently never knew much about him. I was a little stunned, but not really because its all to normal in this world of ours. I feel sorry for him but others have fared worse. I’m glad he’s still with us and wish him well.

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  11. I think it is sad that a person is judged by his sexuality. He was a good actor and I enjoyed his movies. by the grace of god I was not born that way. But through the years I have had some owesom friends that were gay. And I concider them great people. Some of my best friends. I could always count on them. Not like some of my so called straight friends. If you turn your back on someone like him then you are missing out on knowing some really nice people.

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    • He was a great child star, and I wonder how his career could have progressed had he not been blacklisted for his sexuality. However, since films were changing so much in the 1960s and the 1970s, I still feel his career would have floundered.

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  12. As a kid growing up in Arleta in the sixty’s, I lived about a block away from Tommy Kirk. We used to go over to his house and Tommy was always really nice to us kids.
    We knew he was famous and that was a treat for us. Tommy would climb his big peppercorn tree in the front yard and we would play with his hound dog Sam…real good memories. Sure would like to talk to him now and thank him for being so nice.

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  13. Loved your article.

    Tommy Kirk was a childhood favorite of mine. It wasn’t until recently that I found out he was gay, which makes all those early teen fantasies of mine a bit ironic. I know how hard it was to be a gay kid in a regular school, and I can’t imagine what he had to go through.

    You mentioned reading the IMBd article for some of your information. Did you check his wikipedia page? They used some of the same information, but they had a lot of sources for other info that might be interesting to you.

    Thanks

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  14. I also went to school in Pacoima (Vena Elementary to Poly Hi), had a flirtation with Andy for years, and my sister had one with John (the youngest brother). We did see Tommy often, who seemed nice and also shy. Reading from you Pacoima folks is such a kick & brings back wonderful memories. I’d like to hear what Andy and John’s lives have been like (I assume John is Heather’s father?). I salute the old Pacoima crowd!
    Candy (Candyce) Goodfellow

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    • Candyce Goodfellow this is Jeff Hickman. Glad to see you are alive and doing fine. Hope Denise is doing likewise. Tommy Kirk was quite a guy.

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      • Well well! Great to hear from you, Jeff. If you send in your e-mail, I’ll send an e-mail to you & my e-mail address. I wonder how Denny Crum is doing?! Candyce G.

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      • Hi Candy,
        Here is my email address: great58vette@aol.com. Went to a summer basketball clinic for coaches back in ’98 at which Coach Crum was a guest speaker. Spoke to him before his presentation.
        Jeff

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    • hi candy,im john i mheathers uncle,hope denese is doing well last i knew tom was in redding ca hello glen,allen

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    • hi candy,im john i mheathers uncle,hope denese is doing well last i knew tom was in redding ca hello glen,allen,cool your buns

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  15. Glenn here again,hey Andy what ever happened to you and Nina ? I have fond memories of Tommy’s’ old MG and the rices he gave me and johnny, I also live a block from the kirk on Cranford, remembering lucey, there.mother, Louie the Dad and good old frank the house keeper and how johnny and I wold con him into a city, oh And what about that buitiful bottle blond haired Pat, wow johnny and I use to well can’t’ say right here but fond times at the kirks’ took my wife Sue link cookies sister to the kirks with tommy on thanks’ giving, great time…

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  16. People were asking… My Father is the oldest of the Kirk sons. Joe.
    My Dad told me that they were on an audition for a play. My dad didn’t get the job, but, my Uncle Tom got the part. An agent for the Disney studios saw my Uncle and the rest was history. Here is some fun trivia during the making of the Shaggy Dog movie. My Uncle at the time thought that he was a pretty big hot shot and was goofing off.. He got the biggest scolding from Fred M !! To be better behaved. Plus, my Mother had to be at the studio to be Toms guardian one time… And, there was a fight between W. Disney and the guy wearing the dog costume… The guy quit and my other Uncle Andy was visiting the set.. W.Disney had my Uncle Andy ( who was quite young ) put the dog costume and pretend to drive the car in one scene. W. Disney was so nice that he went out and bought my Uncle Andy a brand new bike.
    Heather

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    • My name is Alan Robbins and Andy Kirk was my best friend in jr high and high school. I went to his wedding to Nina. She had a nickname called “Corky”. They got married very young. Anyway, we were good friends in jr High school. It was Pacoima Jr. High in California. I use to sleep over a lot and remember his parents and housekeeper, Frank. I met Tommy Kirk a few times at the house. In high school, I use to let him copy my homework. Lol. I remember his house growing up, a farm type house near the Dairy Farm across the street. I think his mother worked for a lawyer. Andy was always going to his mothers job to ask for money, I use to go with him. I have been trying to locate Andy for a long time but no luck. I have talked to his niece, Heather via email, a nice beautiful girl but doesn’t know his whereabouts. Her father is not well and doesn’t know much other that he thinks his brother might be living in Kentucky. I am very curious to know where Nina is today. I searched for her also. Don’t know if they divorced or what. Her maiden name was I have been living in Connecticut since 1970. Any info on Andy or Nina would be appreciated.

      Sent from my iPad

      >

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    • heather,this is john,correction,i was the dog,walt was great to me,charley barton,the director bought the bike.

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      • I am so very sorry Uncle John. I’m so sorry i hurt your feelings. I asked my Dad this story a few times and he must have been confused. He told me it was Uncle Andy. I’m so sorry for the mix up.
        Your niece
        Heather

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  17. I loved reading this. I decided to do some research on Tommy Kirk after seeing Swiss Family Robinson yesterday which along with Old Yeller were amongst the favourite films of my childhood. See Swiss yesterday brought back such warm feelings. Does anyone know if Tommy Kirk can be contacted as I would like to express my appreciation to him?

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