James at 15 TV Series - Star Crossed Lovers / The Gift
|Date of birth:
Scrappy, plucky-looking Kentucky-born Tommy Kirk, who was born on December 10, 1941, became synonymous with everything clean and fun that Disney Entertainment prescribed to in the late 1950s and very early 1960s. One of four sons born to a mechanic and legal secretary, the Kirk family, in search of better job prospects, moved from Louisville to Downey, California while Tommy was still an infant. The boy's interest in acting was ignited at the age of 13 years when he (instead of older brother Joe) was cast in a minor role in a production of Will Rogers Jr. and Bobby Driscoll in a production of Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!" at the Pasadena Playhouse. Discovered by a Hollywood agent who saw him and signed him up, Tommy went on to appear in two other Pasadena theatre plays, Portrait in Black" and "Barefoot in Athens" and on TV ("Lux Video Theatre, "Frontier," "Big Town," "Gunsmoke" and "The Loretta Young Show") and film (Down Liberty Road (1956) and The Peacemaker (1956)). It was an episode of "Matinee Theatre" that brought the freshly scrubbed All-American kid to the attention of mogul Walt Disney who quickly signed him to a long-term contract.
In 1955, Tommy Kirk became a member of the The Mickey Mouse Club TV series and won a legion of young fans as the brush-cut haired, irrepressibly inquisitive young sleuth Joe Hardy in two Disney Hardy Boys serials ("The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure," "The Mystery of the Ghost Farm") with Tim Considine, another young promising Disney staple, playing older brother Frank. With time Tommy became a prime juvenile Disney hero and ideal mischief maker for many of the studio's full-length comedy and drama classics, earning nationwide teen idol status for his exuberant work in Old Yeller (1957), The Shaggy Dog (1959), Swiss Family Robinson (1960), The Absent Minded Professor (1961), Babes in Toyland (1961), Bon Voyage! (1962), Moon Pilot (1962), Son of Flubber (1963) and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964).
In 1963 the bubble completely burst when the Disney factory found out 21-year-old Tommy was in a relationship with an underage boy. He was also arrested on Christmas Eve in 1964 when a party he was attending was raided and busted for marijuana use. Although charges were dropped, it was too late. Fired from his role in the John Wayne western The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) as a result, the Disney studio, out of protection, was forced to release him from his contract, but not after rehiring him one more time to complete a "Merlin Jones" movie sequel entitled The Monkey's Uncle (1965)).
Tommy found very mild restitution after signing with AIP (American International Pictures) and appearing in such popular teen-oriented flicks as Pajama Party (1964), co-starring fellow Disney cohort Annette Funicello, and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966). He also began appearing on the musical stage as Harold Hill in "The Music Man," Riff in "West Side Story" and as the lead in "Tovarich." He also was lent out to do a lead in the mediocre cult sci-fi Embassy Picture Village of the Giants (1965).
After leaving AIP, things got progressively worse for Tommy with a lead role in Trans American Film's It's a Bikini World (1967) -- by this time, beach party films were no longer trendy. Bargain basement fare such as Unkissed Bride (1966)_ (aka Mother Goose a Go-Go), UA's Track of Thunder (1967), Catalina Caper (1967) Mars Needs Women (1968), in which he played a Martian, and Blood of Ghastly Horror (1967) (aka Psycho a Go-Go) pretty much spelled as a leading man. Practically blacklisted by an industry that deemed "outed" gay actors "box office poison," he returned to the musical theatre in his home state of Kentucky with such shows as "Anything Goes" (as Moonface Martin), "Hello, Dolly!" (as Horace Vandergelder), "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (as Marcus Lycus) and "Little Mary Sunshine" (as General Fairfax).
Following roles in the low budget 70s films Ride the Hot Wind (1971) and the unreleased My Name Is Legend (1975) as well as an isolated TV part on a 1972 episode of The Streets of San Francisco, Tommy disappeared from the limelight. His life went into a seemingly irreversible tailspin. Depressed and angry, he sought solace in drugs and nearly died from an acute overdose at one point. For health reasons, he felt the need to completely abandon his career and slowly moved himself forward as a recovering addict. On a very positive note, he was able to build a very successful carpet and upholstery cleaning company for himself ("Tommy Kirk's Carpet and Upholstery) in Southern California's San Fernando Valley. It stayed open for business for well over two decades.
After some time away, Tommy showed up again in Hollywood, glimpsed in a few dismissible low-budgeters here and there, including Streets of Death (1988), Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfolds (1995), Little Miss Magic (1998), Billy Frankenstein (1998), Club Dead (2000) and, his last to date, The Education of a Vampire (2001). A full-time commitment to acting is quite unlikely but he has done several documentary interviews for the DVD releases of some of his best known films and TV shows and occasionally appears at film festivals and nostalgia convention/memorabilia fests. He lives in Las Vegas.
My friend of many decades, Tommy Kirk, was found dead last night. You will surely recall his string of Disney movies; “Shaggy Dog. Ol’ Yeller,” etc.
Tommy was intensely private. He lived alone in Las Vegas, close to his friend…and “Ol Yeller” co-star, Bev Washburn…and it was she who called me this morning.
Tommy was gay and estranged from what remains of his blood family. We in A Minor Consideration are Tommy’s family. Without apology.
We will take care of this. Please know that Tommy Kirk loved you, his fans. You lifted him up when an Industry let him down in 1965. He was not bitter. His church comforted him. May God have mercy on his soul. --Paul Petersen
[when asked about his contract termination with Walt Disney] Yeah, I picked somebody up. It was just one of those crazy things that I didn't know what I was doing; I used to swim in the public pool in downtown Burbank, and during the summer of 1963 I met this teenager and one thing led to another and we had an affair. And then he talked ... he either told a friend or told his parents about me, because his parents went down to the studio one day and Disney was confronted with this. I was on the set when I was suddenly called into Mr. Disney's office and there was this kid, this 15-year-old kid I was involved with, along with his angry-looking parents, Mr. Disney, and a few executives. The kid's mother just yelled at me and threatened me. After coming clean about everything, they [the parents] thankfully didn't press sodomy charges, but that was the end of my contract. They [the studio] did not renew me.
Even more than MGM, Disney [in the early 1960s] was the most conservative studio in town... They were growing aware. They weren't stupid. They could add two and two together, and I think they were beginning to suspect my homosexuality. I noticed people in certain quarters were getting less and less friendly. In 1963, Disney didn't renew my option and let me go. But Walt personally let me return to do the final Merlin Jones movie, 'The Monkey's Uncle,' because those were moneymakers for the studio.
In the 1960s, all my social life was underground gay bars. It was my own life. I kept it separate from work, where I went on publicity dates with Annette Funicello or Roberta Shore.
I consider my teenage years as being desperately unhappy. I knew I was gay since I was a little kid, but I had no outlet for my feelings and I felt that I could not confide in anyone because of the fear of being discovered to who I really was. 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 Sixties that I began to hear of places where gays congregated... When I was about 17 or 18 years old, I finally admitted to myself that I wasn't going to change. I was born homosexual and I had to accept that. I didn't know what the consequences would be if I came out, but I had the definite feeling that it was going to wreck my Disney career and maybe my whole acting career... and I turned out to be right. 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 some guy, that was the end of Disney.