Tommy Kirk, Young Disney Actor in ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ and ‘Old Yeller,’ Dies at 79

Tommy Kirk & Sandra Dee on the set of “The Snow Queen” (Photo Credit: Walt Disney Productions & Universal – Downloaded from eBay: ebay item, Public Domain, accessed via Wikimedia Commons)

Former child star Tommy Kirk, who was best known for his roles in Disney films such as Swiss Family Robinson, Old Yeller, and The Shaggy Dog, was found dead in his Las Vegas home on Tuesday. He was 79 years old.

The cause of death has not been released, although no foul play is suspected. Close friend Paul Petersen II shared the sad news in a statement posted to Facebook. “Please know that Tommy Kirk loved you, his fans,” he wrote.

Early years

Tommy kirk, 1960s. (photo credit: film favorites/getty images)

Tommy Kirk, 1960s. (Photo Credit: Film Favorites/Getty Images)

Tommy Kirk was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on December 10, 1941. When he was just 15 months old, his family moved to Los Angeles to pursue better job opportunities. Tommy accompanied his brother Joe to an audition in 1954 and although Joe didn’t get a part, young Tommy did. A talent agent saw his performance in the play, and his television career started to blossom.

Some of his earliest TV roles included Gunsmoke, Bigtown, Crossroads, and the Mickey Mouse Club’s Hardy Boys serial adventures.

Rise and fall as a Disney darling

Old yeller, lobbycard, tommy kirk, 1957. (photo credit: lmpc via getty images)

Old Yeller, lobbycard, Tommy Kirk, 1957. (Photo Credit: LMPC via Getty Images)

Being cast as Travis Coates in Disney’s tearjerker film Old Yeller was Kirk’s big break. The movie about a boy and his heroic dog was a box-office success and Kirk became a go-to actor for Disney.

Other notable Disney film credits include 1959’s The Shaggy Dog, The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), Bon Vogage (1962), and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1963).

His career as an actor for Disney came to an end in 1963 when the studio discovered he was gay. Difficult times followed his departure from Disney, including being arrested in 1964 for possession of marijuana and barbiturates. Despite the barbiturates being prescribed, the incident led studios to cast other actors in several of Kirk’s upcoming roles.

Tommy kirk, as merlin jones, and annette funicello as jennifer, in a publicity still for ‘the misadventures of merlin jones’, directed by robert stevenson, 1964. (photo credit: silver screen collection/getty images)

Tommy Kirk, as Merlin Jones, and Annette Funicello as Jennifer, in a publicity still for ‘The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones’, directed by Robert Stevenson, 1964. (Photo Credit: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

In 1973, Kirk publicly came out as gay. In an interview for Filmfax magazine, he said, “I didn’t know what the consequences[of coming out] would be, but I had the definite feeling that it was going to wreck my Disney career and maybe my whole acting career.”

He did land parts in some unremarkable films such as Pajama Party (1964), Village of the Giants (1965), and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966), but ended up leaving the acting business in 1973. Kirk said at the time that he didn’t blame Disney or other studios for not wanting to work with him because of his ongoing struggles with addiction.

Later life

At a 2009 disney expo (photo credit: myrna litt – flickr, cc by 2. 0)

At a 2009 Disney expo (Photo Credit: Myrna Litt – Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Kirk got his life back on track and operated a carpet and upholstery cleaning company in the San Fernando Valley for years.

More from us: Child Stars Of The ’70s: What Happened To Them After Fame?

On October 9, 2006, alongside his former co-stars Tim Considine and Kevin Corcoran, Tommy Kirk was named a Disney Legend. He shared this story about a chance encounter with Walt Disney in Beverly Hills. “He was with Hedda Hopper, the legendary columnist. He put his arm around me, and he said, ‘This is my good-luck piece here,’ to Hedda Hopper. I never forgot that. That’s the nicest compliment he ever gave me.”

Kirk added, “I want to be remembered for my Disney work, like ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ and ‘Old Yeller.’”

RIP Tommy Kirk, 1941 – 2021

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