Tommy Kirk has died. An actor best known for his work with Disney in the 1950s and early ’60s—most notably in starring roles in Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog, Swiss Family Robinson, and more—Kirk’s career was derailed in the mid-1960s after developing a drug addiction, an issue highlighted by a high-profile arrest in 1964. (The fact that, by that point, the highly conservative studios were realizing Kirk was gay, probably didn’t help.) He starred in several of the highest-grossing films of the period for Disney, alongside a series of beach-party films for AIP that frequently paired him with Annette Funicello, and was named a Disney Legend in 2006. Per Variety, Kirk was reportedly found dead in his Las Vegas home on Tuesday. He was 79.
Like many actors of his generation, Kirk got his start on TV Westerns, appearing on TV’s Reader’s Digest, Frontier, and Gunsmoke when he was only 15. He got his big break in 1956, when Disney cast him as teen sleuth Joe Hardy in a series of serialized shorts produced for the second season of The Mickey Mouse Club. Kirk and his boy-next-door charms would work regularly for the studio for the next decade, later recounting an anecdote that Walt Disney once called him his “good luck charm” for his string of cinematic successes.The most notable of these—at least, in terms of Kirk’s career—was 1957's Old Yeller. As Travis Coates, Kirk was the focal point for the film’s sweetness and most especially its sadness, putting his beloved pooch out of his misery in the film’s memorable tear-jerker climax. That same film kicked off Kirk’s run as Disney’s go-to teen movie star for the next several years, which saw him star in The Shaggy Dog, The Absent-Minded Professor, Swiss Family Robinson, and Son Of Flubber, often opposite Fred MacMurray, Funicello, and his old Hardy Boys and Old Yeller co-stars Tim Considine and Kevin Corcoran.
In 1963—during the filming of The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones—Disney declined to renew Kirk’s contract, after the mother of a 15-year-old he was in a relationship with reported the 21-year-old Kirk to the studio. (That being said, Jones made so much money that Disney couldn’t resist inviting him back for a sequel that came out in 1965.) But any potential return—and Kirk’s lucrative beach-party movies with AIP, which started with The Maid And The Martian/Pajama Party in 1964—were sidelined when he was arrested on marijuana charges on Christmas Eve 1964, with reports that barbiturates were discovered in his car circulating out of studio control. Several of his movies were subsequently re-cast, and Kirk began working in lower-budget fare, including on the sets of self-proclaimed “schlockmeister” Larry Buchanan.
In later interviews, Kirk said that he wasn’t bitter about this treatment, calling himself, and his own addictions, the cause of his acting downfall. The 1970s saw him reportedly recover from his drug addictions, come out publicly as gay, and, eventually, retire from acting. (His last credit was a small part in a 2001 horror film, one of only 6 acting jobs he took from 1975 onward.) In its remembrance of him, Disney noted today that Kirk was recently interviewed for an upcoming publication celebrating the making of 1960's Swiss Family Robinson. It also quoted his Disney Legends acceptance speech back in 2006, in which he declared that, I want to be remembered for my Disney work, like Swiss Family Robinson and Old Yeller.”