R.I.P. Tommy Kirk

I learned the sad news of Tommy Kirk’s passing yesterday, but was too much engaged with preparing my silent comedy talk to do a timely appreciation. Kirk’s most classic film, I think most people will agree, is Walt Disney’s Old Yeller (1957), a film I have always felt personally connected to, for in that movie and its 1963 sequel Savage Sam, Kirk played a character named Travis Coates. I imagine this, and perhaps John Wayne’s 1960 The Alamo, were inspirations for my own naming, my father being a fan of both westerns and Walt Disney. Kirk’s family was from Kentucky; he seemed really authentic in his early frontier roles.

Baby Boomers will feel a special ache at news of Kirk’s loss today. Much like his frequent co-star Annette Funicello, Kirk was associated principally with two studios: Disney’s, and then AIP. He first began acting at age 13, in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah Wilderness! at the Pasadena Playhouse with Will Rogers Jr and Disney kid actor Bobby Driscoll. He worked in television for a couple of years, and was quickly noticed and signed by Disney. In 1956, he and Tim Considine were cast as The Hardy Boys in a regular serial presented on The Mickey Mouse Club, I watched these in reruns on TV as a kid 20 years later. Other stuff for Disney included the hits The Shaggy Dog (1959), The Swiss Family Robinson (1960), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and its sequel Son of Flubber (1963), and the 1961 version of Babes in Toyland.

By The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964), Kirk was of age to play a college student (23). I would not be shocked to learn that his clean-cut look at this juncture was at least a partial model for Vincent Kartheiser‘s as Pete Campbell in Mad Men. He was not a boy scout offscreen, however, and unfortunately he got into some adult trouble. He was busted for pot, and had naturally acquired a sex life. It happened to be a gay one, and that was too much for Mr. Disney. Kirk’s contract was not renewed.

Kirk’s movies during his AIP period were classics of their own kind, youth films for the teen demographic, such stuff as Pajama Party (1964), The Weird World of Dr. Goldfoot (a 1965 TV special to promote Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine), The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966), and It’s a Bikini World (1967). For Bert I. Gordon he starred in the similar Village of the Giants (1965). He still had enough box office juice in 1967 to star in the auto racing movie Track of Thunder, which was released by United Artists. But soon he descended to schlock: Mars Needs Women (1968) with Yvonne Craig a.k.a. Batgirl; It’s Alive! (1968, not the John Carpenter one); Blood of Ghastly Horror (1970) with John Carradine; and a biker film called Ride the Hot Wind (1971). By then he was deeply into drugs, which ended up being pretty fatal to his career.

Kirk then studied with Lee Strasberg for a time, appeared in a 1973 episode of The Streets of San Francisco, and then cleaned up and formally retired from the business. In 1976 the Disney studio made the Shaggy Dog sequel The Shaggy D.A. with Dean Jones in the lead. There was no question of Kirk taking the role at that stage. He did return later in bit parts in Fred Olen Ray romps like Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold (1995) and Billy Frankenstein (1998). For years he ran a carpet cleaning business, the sort of thing he might have done had he never become an actor. But anyone who grew up with his films could scarcely forget he had been one.