#RIP: Tommy Kirk (1941 – 2021)
Thomas Lee Kirk is a principal character in one of my earliest memories and I must say, I could have done much worse. I was beside myself with grief after watching the Disney flick Old Yeller (1958) when I was four years old. Inconsolable, my mother had to make me hot chocolate and give me reassurance in the form of cookies. I have never recovered. I have used the memory of this film as my method of crying on cue when I used to be an actor.
I had my first crush before I could have ever mentally formulated the concept of being queer. I didn’t understand why I felt so dizzy and tingly, while watching The Hardy Boys serial on my favorite show, The Mickey Mouse Club. The show ran daily at 4pm, and I was there. My attention was focused on our black-and-white television in the den. Monday was Fun With Music Day; Tuesday was the exciting Guest Star Day; Wednesday- Anything Can Happen Day; Thursday brought Circus Day; Friday we got Talent Round-Up Day which included a The Hardy Boys installment.
Tim Considine and Kirk were The Hardy Boys and I couldn’t stop feeling all dreamy about them. Oh, I wanted to be a Hardy Boy too. I knew I could help solve mysteries along with those two boys. A few years later, I almost couldn’t make it through Swiss Family Robinson (1960) at The Fox Theatre in Downtown Spokane on a Saturday afternoon, with all the shirtless males and Kirk as close to naked as I could have ever imagined, and imagine I did.
Kirk was one of Walt Disney Studios’ leading male stars of the late 1950s and early 1960s: The Shaggy Dog (1959), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), Son Of Flubber (1963). His regular Sunday night presence on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color (1954–1992) rocked my young world.
Kirk was very much an All-American Boy. I related to him and emulated him. His clean good-looks, honest face, comic timing, and wholesome roles were what I aspired to be as an actor. Little could I have known that my Tommy Kirk was a homosexual.
Young Kirk knew that his being gay would create problems with his career as well as with his strict Baptist parents. Kirk:
“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 1960s that I began to hear of places where gays congregated.”
One of Kirk’s last big Disney roles was The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, which was released in 1964. He was 23 years old at the time. Kirk became involved with a 16-year-old boy he had picked up at a public swimming pool. The boy’s mother went to Walt Disney to personally complain. Disney decided that Kirk was becoming a liability for the studio, summoned him to his office and fired him. Kirk’s contract was dropped, but the studio did allow him to come back to film The Monkey’s Uncle (1965), which coincidentally was with his friend Annette Funicello in her final Disney film.
“My early sexual experiences were desperate and miserable. Mostly brief encounters were very back-alley kind of things. 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 is 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.”
In 1964, Kirk was arrested for smoking marijuana and he was also found with barbiturates in his car, though the barbiturates were later found to have been prescribed by a doctor. Still, these incidents caused studios to replace him in several of his upcoming roles. Kirk had been a star for more than a decade. Suddenly he was “box office poison.”
He found some work, but his films during this time were campy fare like Pajama Party (1964) with Funicello and a slumming Elsa Lanchester. He was in Mars Needs Women (1967) where he played a sexy shirtless Martian, and was in something titled Psycho à Go-Go (1967).
“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.”
Kirk’s personal life also hit the skids:
“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 lived through it all.”
Kirk eventually left show business, saying:
“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 in 1973.
In his last three decades, Kirk owned his own carpet and upholstery cleaning business headquartered in the San Fernando Valley. He had stated that he wished to be remembered for the Disney work, especially Swiss Family Robinson, his personal favorite.
Kirk helped fuel my earliest fantasies about other guys. I will always appreciate that about him. Now, he is gone at 79 years old. Rest in Power, Tommy Kirk.