Thomas Lee Kirk (born December 10, 1941) is an American former actor and later a businessman. He was best known for his performances in a number of highly popular films made by Walt Disney Studios such as Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog, The Swiss Family Robinson, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, as well as the beach-party films of the mid-1960s.
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.
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 star struck," says Kirk. Joe was not cast, losing out to Bobby Driscoll, but Tommy was, and he made his stage debut opposite Will Rogers, Jr. "It was five lines, it didn't pay anything, and nobody else showed up, so I got the part," said Kirk.
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", directed by William Beaudine. Kirk's brother went on to become a dentist.
Kirk began to work steadily in television throughout 1956 and 1957: episodes of Lux Video Theatre ("Green Promise"), Frontier ("The Devil and Doctor O'Hara"), Big Town ("Adult Delinquents"), Crossroads ("The Rabbi Davis Story"), Gunsmoke ("Cow Doctor"), Letter to Loretta ("But for God's Grace", "Little League"), and Matinee Theatre ("The Outing", "The Others" – a version of Turn of the Screw).
Kirk also supported Angie Dickinson in a short feature called Down Liberty Road (aka Freedom Highway) (1956), a short commercial travelogue produced by Greyhound Lines to promote their Scenicruiser buses.
Of these early 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.
The Hardy Boys
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.
In August 1956 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.
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 happened.
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 together as brothers.
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.
Kirk appeared in another Hardy brothers installment, the original story The Mystery of Ghost Farm (September 13 – December 20, 1957).
He continued to guest star in TV series, such as The O. Henry Playhouse ("Christmas by Injunction"), The Californians (as Billy Kilgore in "Little Lost Man"), Matinee Theatre ("Look Out for John Tucker") and Playhouse 90 ("A Corner of the Garden").
He provided the voice (along with Sandra Dee) for the U.S. version of a Soviet animated feature, The Snow Queen (1957).
The Shaggy Dog and Swiss Family Robinson
In July 1958 Kirk was cast in The Shaggy Dog (1959), a comedy about a boy inventor who, under the influence of a magic ring, is repeatedly transformed into an Old English Sheepdog. 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.
He went back to TV, appearing in The Millionaire ('Millionaire Charles Bradwell") (1959) and Bachelor Father ("A Key for Kelly").
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), starring John Mills, Dorothy Maguire, Janet Munro and Corcoran. This was another box office hit, and it remains Kirk's favorite movie. When he returned from filming in the West Indies, the studio signed him to two more movies.
In 1959 he and a friend were almost killed in a car crash in Arizona. "The car was totally demolished, but we didn't get a scratch," he said later. "How do you explain that?"
Kirk followed it with a support role in a fantasy comedy starring Fred MacMurray, The Absent-Minded Professor (1961). It was another huge hit.
Disney sent Kirk to England along with Munro and Funicello for The Horsemasters (1961), a youth-oriented horse riding film, which was made for US television but screened theatrically in some markets.
Kirk guested on Angel ("Goodbye Young Lovers"), and for Disney played the support role of Grumio in the fairy tale fantasy Babes in Toyland, supporting Funicello, Ray Bolger, Ed Wynn and Tommy Sands. Kirk later described this film as "sort of a klunker... but it has a few cute moments, it's an oddity", and enjoyed working with Ed Wynn. It was a box office disappointment. So too was Moon Pilot (1962), a satirical comedy for Disney where Kirk played the younger brother of Tom Tryon.
Kirk did a family comedy with MacMurray, Bon Voyage (1962), with other family members played by Jane Wyman, Deborah Walley and Corcoran. MacMurray once reportedly gave Kirk "the biggest dressing-down of my life" during the filming, one that Kirk says he deserved. Kirk:
I really liked him [MacMurray] 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 starred with Funicello another oversea-shot story which screened in the US on TV but was released in some countries theatrically: Escapade in Florence (1962). Newspaper columns occasionally linked Kirk and Funicello's names romantically. 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.
In July 1962 Disney announced he would make The Happiest American with Kirk but it appears to have not been made. Instead he did a sequel to Absent Minded Professor, Son of Flubber (1963), his last film with MacMurray.
Kirk guest starred on an episode of Mr. Novak, "Love in the Wrong Season" (1963). He was given the lead in Disney's Savage Sam (1963), a follow up to Old Yeller which reunited him with Corcoran and co-starred Brian Keith; it was not as well received as Old Yeller. He guested in "Ten Minutes from Now", an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1964).
Misadventures of Merlin Jones
Disney then cast Kirk as "scrambled egghead" student inventor Merlin Jones in The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964), opposite Funicello. The film was directed by Robert Stevenson and directed by Bill Walsh, who had made the bulk of Disney's comedies. It became an unexpected box office sensation and was one of the biggest hits of the year.
Kirk says he only met Walt Disney outside the studio one time, at a party. Kirk says Disney called him his "good luck charm".
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.
While filming The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, Kirk started seeing a 15-year-old boy he had met at a local swimming pool in Burbank. The boy's mother discovered the affair and informed Disney, who elected not to renew Kirk's contract. Kirk was 23 years old. Walt Disney himself fired Kirk after receiving a complaint from the boy's mother. 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."
The news of Kirk's termination from Disney Studios and of his homosexualty was not made public, and Kirk soon found work for himself at American International Pictures (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 (1964) and was a box office 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, as well as a beach party movie Beach Ball.
On Christmas Eve 1964 Kirk was arrested for suspicion of possession of marijuana at a house in Hollywood. The district attorney's office subsequently refused to file a complaint against him on the marijuana charge. The city attorney's office, however, filed an illegal drugs charge because officers found a vial of barbituates in his car. This charge was dismissed by a judge in early January when Kirk's attorney established that the barbituates had been prescribed by a physician. However, the damage to Kirk's career had been done. He was replaced on Wild Bikini by Dwayne Hickman, on Katie Elder by Michael Anderson, Jr., and on Beach Ball by Edd Byrnes.
"This town is full of right-wingers—the world is full of right-wingers—intolerant, cruel sons-of-bitches", Kirk said later. But he also said later that he "richly deserved to be fired from the studios because of my irresponsibility. A person on drugs is not fit for work".
For the moment Kirk could still get work. He appeared in Village of the Giants (1965) for director Bert I. Gordon, alongside Beau Bridges and Ron Howard. Kirk later described it 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".
In September 1965 Kirk made a beach party/crime film for Executive Pictures Corp, Catalina Caper released in 1967).
The Monkey's Uncle came out in July 1965 and was almost as successful as Merlin Jones. AIP cast him in The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966) with Deborah Walley. Soon after, he and Walley were put in It's a Bikini World, filmed in late 1965 under the direction of Stephanie Rothman. It was not released until 1967.
Also for AIP he appeared in a TV special, The Wild Weird World of Dr. Goldfoot (1965), made to promote Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, which aired in November 1965. In December, he announced he would make three more films for Exclusive, starting with Teacher, Teacher, alongside Bob Denver and Dawn Wells but the film would not be made. Catalina Caper would not come out until 1967.
The release of Bikini World and Catalina Caper was held up for a number of months and Ghost in the Invisible Bikini was a box office failure, leading the end of the beach movie cycle. 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.
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." Among those were Catalina Caper and It's a Bikini World.
Kirk also disliked a comedy he made for Jack H. Harris, Unkissed Bride (1966), and 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."
Buchanan later said:
Tommy was a really fine actor, but he just disappeared into the woodwork. He had a lot of emotional problems, and needed to talk things out. And the problem of being the director and an Aquarius, I didn't get much sleep having to listen to those stories. After putting in a 10-hour day, he'd want to go and have a few beers until two in the morning. We'd talk about Europe, traveling, philosophy, what he wanted to do with his life. He is a very cultured person, and a very proud person, so he probably took as much as he could before dropping out."
In October 1966 Kirk was in a car racing film, Track of Thunder (1967) but his personal problems were beginning to affect his career:
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.
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."
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."
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. He was in "Deadline", a 1973 episode of The Streets of San Francisco (1973) and a feature My Name is Legend (1975).
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 he was "poor" adding that:
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.
In 1990 he was working on a script about Abraham Lincoln but it appears to have not been made.
He continued to act occasionally, 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.
In 2006 he was retired, living in Redding, California. He reflected:
As I look back on the whole thing, it gave me the chance to be in three or four movies that people will enjoy long after I'm gone. I heard Pat Boone say in an interview that the bombs are just as important as the hits, because they are all part of life. I'm not bitter. I'm not unhappy things didn't go the way I wanted them to go with my career. I tried to be a good actor and an ethical person. I'm still trying to be an ethical and honest person. But I'm glad to be retired. I live in the middle of a national park, basically, with miles and miles of wilderness. Redding ain't glamorous. Monte Carlo it is not. It's small-town life, and it suits me.
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.
- The Peacemaker (1956) - Tommy (uncredited)
- Old Yeller (1957) - Travis Coates
- The Snow Queen (1957) - Kay (voice in 1959 English dubbed version)
- The Shaggy Dog (1959) - Wilby Daniels
- Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - Ernst
- The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) - Biff Hawk
- Babes in Toyland (1961) - Grumio
- The Horsemasters (1961, TV Series) - Danny Grant
- Moon Pilot (1962) - Walter Talbot
- Escapade in Florence (1962, TV Series) - Tommy Carpenter
- Bon Voyage! (1962) - Elliott Willard
- Son of Flubber (1963) - Biff Hawk
- Savage Sam (1963) - Travis Coates
- The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964) - Merlin Jones
- Pajama Party (1964) - Go Go
- The Monkey's Uncle (1965) - Merlin Jones
- Village of the Giants (1965) - Mike
- The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966) - Chuck Phillips
- The Unkissed Bride (1966) - Ted
- It's a Bikini World (1967) - Mike Samson / Herbert Samson
- Catalina Caper (1967) - Don Pringle
- Track of Thunder (1967) - Bobby Goodwin
- Blood of Ghastly Horror (1967) - Sgt. Cross
- Mars Needs Women (1967, TV Movie) - Dop - Martian Fellow #1 / Mr. Fast - Seattle Sun Reporter
- It's Alive! (1969, TV Movie) - Wayne Thomas
- Ride the Hot Wind (1971) - Captain Gregory Shank
- My Name Is Legend (1975)
- Streets of Death (1988) - Frank Phillips
- Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold (1995) - Passenger
- Little Miss Magic (1998) - Mr. Kenner
- Billy Frankenstein (1998) - Blind Monk
- Club Dead (2000) - Private Detective
- The Education of a Vampire (2001) - Albert Kornfield
- Short Subjects
- Down Liberty Road (1956)
- TV Reader's Digest – "The Last of the Old Time Shooting Sheriffs" – 17 January 1955
- Frontier – "The Devil and Doctor O'Hara" – 5 February 1956
- Letter to Loretta – "But for God's Grace" – 1 April 1956
- Big Town – "Adult Delinquents" – 8 May 1956
- Crossroads – "The Rabbi Davis Story" – 8 June 1956
- Gunsmoke – "Cow Doctor" – 8 September 1956
- Letter to Loretta – "Little League" – 16 September 1956
- The Mickey Mouse Club – "The Hardy Boys: The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure" – 2–26 October 1956
- Matinee Theatre – "The Outing" – 2 November 1956
- The Mickey Mouse Club – "The Eagle Hunters" – voice over narration
- The Mickey Mouse Club – "Boys of the Western Sea" – voice over
- Matinee Theatre – "The Others" (based on The Turn of the Screw) – 15 February 1957
- The Mickey Mouse Club – "The Mystery of Ghost Farm" – 13 September – 20 December 1957
- The Californians – "Little Lost Man" – 3 December 1957
- Matinee Theatre – "Look Out for John Tucker" – 4 June 1958
- Playhouse 90 – "A Corner of the Garden" – 23 April 1959
- The Millionaire – "Millionaire Charles Bradwell" – 10 June 1959
- Bachelor Father – "A Key for Kelly" – 19 November 1959
- Angel – "Goodbye Young Lovers" – 17 May 1961
- Mr. Novak – "Love in the Wrong Season" – 3 December 1963
- Shindig! – "The Wild Weird World of Dr. Goldfoot" – 18 November 1965
- The Streets of San Francisco – "Deadline" – 15 February 1973