His name was Tommy Kirk. He was the all-American teen sensation, and one of Disney’s leading young men. He had the innocent, clean-cut image of the boy next door. But underneath, there was something he had to hide: his sexuality.
Walt Disney and his studio had a reputation for being very conservative. Walt Disney himself was a strident imperialist, supporting the U.S. efforts against Communism during the Red Scare. He was a McCarthyist is every sense, from promoting middle-class American values worldwide in many of his post-World War II films, to actually testifying before Congress against several writers he suspected of Communist views.
Needless to say, his attitude towards gays wasn’t very flattering either. To him, Tommy Kirk was supposed to be the ideal of American boyhood: witty, charming, adventurous, masculine. And straight. Very, very straight.
Tommy Kirk was discovered at 13, in 1954, while performing at Pasadena Playhouse. He would later audition for the Mickey Mouse Club, as well as landing several small film and tv roles. His biggest one was playing Joe Hardy in The Hardy Boys, second only to his famous co-star Tim Considine, who played his brother.
But the role that would really see him rise to prominence was in Old Yeller (1957) playing the lead protagonist, Travis Coates. It was probably his most famous role. After that, Tommy Kirk catapulted to stardom, overtaking his Hardy Boys co-star.
Kirk continued to land successful roles. He came to star in such movies as The Shaggy Dog (1959), Swiss Family Robinson (1960), and The Absent-Minded Professor (1961). However, it was his personal, off-set life that came to hinder him.
Tommy Kirk was known for being a party boy. A lot of his antics, including drinking and drugs, began to interfere with his performances on set. He had a tumultuous relationship with some of his co-stars, including Fred MacMurray, who reportedly scolded him on the set of The Absent-Minded Professor.
And he had a secret he was keeping. For many years Tommy Kirk, like others at time, kept their homosexuality on the down low. At 17 or 18, he accepted the fact that was gay, but feared what it would mean for his Disney character. The conflict between his on-screen persona as the all-American boy and his personal life led to deep frustrations. He described most of his teenage years as being very lonely and miserable. Most of his love life was restricted to “intimate” encounters that were kept in secret, away from the public eye.
It’s logical to assume that the Disney studio was probably aware of his sexuality but chose to ignore it as long as the news didn’t go public. But the tip of the iceberg came in 1963, during the filming of The Misadventures of Merlin Jones. Kirk met and had an affair with a 15-year old boy that he picked up from a public swimming pool. At the time he was 21, and by today’s standards, clearly overaged. The boy’s mother went on to complain to Disney. And that was the end.
Walt Disney dropped Kirk’s contract, but allowed him to come back for one last movie, The Monkey’s Uncle (1965). After that he had one chance for a comeback role in The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) with John Wayne. But this was all dashed to pieces after Kirk was arrested during a drug bust at a Christmas Eve party for marijuana possession. His “habit” went straight to the headlines.
Throughout the rest of the 60s, Tommy Kirk was relegated to cameos and small roles in low-budget, teenage beach comedies. Ergo, Mars Needs Women (1967) and It’s a Bikini World (1967). The failures of his career extended to his personal life: he fell deeper into money and drug troubles, almost overdosing several times.
It’s reasonable to say that losing his Disney name effectively ended his stardom. While Kirk was critical of the hard-core right-wing nature of the business industry, he maintained that his ultimate failure was due to drugs. In the early 70s he quit acting, and then later officially “came out” as gay in 1973.
Since then, Kirk has been successfully off drugs. He is still alive today, in charge of his own carpet and upholstery business. But still not acting. For many people he is one of those vanished child stars, who grew up famous and then fell off the radar, like so many others. He’s one of those “unsung” Disney legends. He is remembered most for his classic role in Old Yeller, yet very few know the tumultuous story of his personal life. And how he, like so many others, had to hide their sexuality in order to succeed in the industry.
After Kirk was dropped from Disney, it was obvious that in the years to come they would need a new leading boy. Supposedly, on his death bed, the last words that Walt Disney said (or rather wrote on paper) were Kurt Russell, who would actually go on to be one of Disney’s top stars during the 1970s. But the story of the “last words” was really an urban legend, made up. Probably like the story my Mom once told me about Walt Disney meeting Russell for the first time after dropping Kirk. Supposedly he clapped him on the shoulder and asked “So, you like girls, young man?” To which a young Russell replied “Yeah, Mr. Disney, I like girls a lot.” Walt was just checking to make sure his new leading man would be “all man”.