Sunday, December 10, 2017

Happy Birthday to 'Old Yeller' Star Tommy Kirk

Tommy Kirk was born today, December 10, in 1941. He is a former 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 Swiss Family Robinson, as well as beach-party movies of the mid-1960s.

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, but Tommy was, and he made his stage debut opposite Will Rogers, Jr. Kirk began to work steadily in television throughout 1956 and 1957.

Kirk received his big break 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.

Kirk then starred 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.

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). This was another box office hit, and it remains Kirk's favorite movie.

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).

Disney 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 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. The boy's mother discovered the affair and informed Disney, who elected not to renew Kirk's contract. Kirk was 21 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."

The news was not made public and Kirk soon found a home 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 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, 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.

On Christmas Eve 1964 Kirk was arrested for possession of marijuana. Although the charges were later dropped on a technicality in January 1965, 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. But he later said 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) 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 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 (filmed in 1965, released in 1967). Along with Village of the Giants this was eventually lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

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 said,

"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."

Kirk's acting career tapered off during the late 1960s, hampered by the transition to adulthood, drug use, and "personal problems." He was in a car racing film, Track of Thunder (1967) and he said,

"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."

Tommy Kirk in 2009.
Kirk publicly came out as gay in a 1973 interview. 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 20 years.

He continued to act occasionally, including in the spoof, Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold. As of 2006, Kirk had more than 30 feature film roles to his credit. 

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