When I was a kid, I used to envy the child actors I would watch in the live-action Disney movies for getting paid to simply have fun at the Disney studios. What kid wouldn’t love that? That’s the kid equivalent of a creepy pervert getting a gig as cleanup guy at a strip club. Suh-weet!
Of course, there’s that point when the actors would get older and begin to lose those child-like looks–the peach fuzz on the upper lips of the boys or the burgeoning hourglass shape of the girls, these were signs that it was time to move on and let the new batch of youthful talent have their turn.
One actor in particular that I had always wondered about, though, was Tommy Kirk. From 13 to 24, Tommy Kirk was a Disney favorite. Then…well, I had no idea what happened. I kind of assumed he must’ve died. But, as it turns out, he’s alive and well.
Was he one of those that decided to retire young, never once regretting a childhood of incredible experiences?
Well, not quite.
For the years between the time he made his Disney premiere as a Hardy Boy to his last hurrah as Merlin Jones in The Monkey’s Uncle, Tommy Kirk was a talented and beloved member of the Disney family.
But, like all families, not everything was as perfect as you might believe.
Tommy Kirk, adored by the general public and groomed by his employer to embody the All-American Boy persona, was far from living the dream life. In a 1993 interview, Kirk said of this time, “I consider my teenage years to be incredibly unhappy.”
Unhappy? How on Earth could a burgeoning adolescent working for family-friendly Walt Disney and brought up by strict Kentucky Baptists ever be unhappy? Believe it or not, Tommy was hiding a secret.
Was he addicted to heroin? Did he secretly punish smaller children with hot pokers? Was he polluting the Disney water supply with early-versions of LSD?
Worse! Tommy Kirk was gay. (Insert the sound of a woman screaming and music from the shower scene in Psycho here).
At an early age, Kirk knew he was gay. He also knew that admitting it to anyone would be damaging to every aspect of his career. The problem was that, in the late 1950’s and early 60’s, being an outspoken, Russia-loving Communist at a party thrown by Joseph McCarthy was probably more acceptable than being a gay teenager.
“As a teenager I had some affairs,” Kirk admitted, “but they were always stolen, back alley kind of things. They were desperate and miserable.”
Joe Hardy, Travis Coates, Ernst Robinson, Wilby Daniels the Shaggy Dog himself, was reduced to depressing, personal lows in order to hide himself from conservative America. No matter who you are, you have to admit that that’s pretty sad.
Kirk kept it buried deep down as best he could, but that tension had to come out in some form or another. For Tommy Kirk, that outlet became acting out into a party lifestyle fueled by amphetamines and alcohol (he started drinking at age 14). Kirk later admitted, “I was very high on pills. One time I blacked out and fainted during a scene.”
I’m sure his Baptist parents preferred their son have a drug addiction, instead of, you know, loving someone. Only one of those can have an intervention, am I right?
“Tommy, we know that you’ve been doing the gay, don’t deny it. We’re worried and we love you.”
“Okay, I’ll stop. Thanks Mom and Dad for loving me enough for me to kick ‘the habit’.”
And problem solved! *dust off hands*
One has to wonder, though: Maybe Tommy Kirk confided his secret to one of his co-stars. Maybe he then got concerned that that co-star might talk. Maybe Tommy Kirk had to make sure his secret was never revealed. And maybe, just maybe, the only way Tommy Kirk could do this was to claim his co-star had rabies and then shoot him. Oh, Old Yeller, how many secrets did you take with you to the grave?
Anger and emotional isolation turned into erratic and obstructive behavior, on and off the set. At one point, Fred MacMurray—his co-star in The Absent-Minded Professor–apparently scolded the hell out of Kirk for being a partying ass. Who know Fred MacMurray had it in him?
Finally, in 1963, the mother of a Burbank boy with whom Kirk was having an affair complained to Walt Disney–and, well, it’s safe to say that things unraveled into a very non-Disney-esque happy ending: Walt Disney personally fired Tommy Kirk after finishing the first Merlin Jones film.
Fired. Fired from the studio that brought the world such masculine characters as Ferdinand the Bull or, the testosterone-leaking dragon from The Reclutant Dragon. Oh, Walt, Walt, Walt…
Unfortunately for Disney, Kirk’s ‘last movie’ movie was so popular with audiences, Disney had to awkwardly get Kirk back for the sequel, The Monkey’s Uncle. This movie showcased Kirk’s inability to cope as several scenes show him obviously watching a slow-moving, rainbow strewn world through fogged over eyes. Tommy, Tommy, Tommy…
More drugs and bad choices relegated Kirk to working in some of the lamest movies ever made—many of which used the word ‘bikini’ in the titles (ex: Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine). Two of Kirk’s movies were so bad, they were targeted by the Mystery Science Theater gang.
Time heals all wounds, though. In 2006, Disney inducted Tommy Kirk into the Disney Legends with open arms. I guess that’s a reconciliation of sorts. A sort of, “Hey, we love you, man. Sorry about the whole hating gay people thing awhile back. Let’s just forget about that. Ooh, hey, sandwiches…”
Sober, happy and incredibly forgiving, Tommy Kirk now lives the quiet life of a businessman–but one that is never far from an adoring public who still regard him as that All-American Boy Next Door.