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Donald Kirke

Donald Kirke

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Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

A likable, boyish player in Walt Disney Pictures' film and television efforts during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Tommy Kirk played good-hearted if hapless boys and teenagers in such popular live-action pictures as "Old Yeller" (1957), "The Shaggy Dog" (1957), "The Absent-Minded Professor" (1962) and "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones" (1964). However, the clean-cut image Disney constructed for Kirk was a flimsy shield for his offscreen lifestyle, which included rampant drug use, as well as homosexuality. The latter proved his downfall in 1965, when word about his proclivities led Disney to eject him from their fold. Kirk struggled to maintain his career throughout the 1960s before gaining control of his life in the 1970s and opening his own successful business. Despite the stigma that surrounded his dismissal, Kirk's best efforts made him one of Disney's most beloved and most recognizable young performers.Born Thomas Lee Kirk in Louisville, KY on Dec. 10, 1941, he was the second of four sons by parents Louis and Lucy Kirk. The family relocated to a ranch near Pacoima, CA, where Kirk spent most of his childhood riding horses. At age 12, he was dared by an older brother to try out for a production...

A likable, boyish player in Walt Disney Pictures' film and television efforts during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Tommy Kirk played good-hearted if hapless boys and teenagers in such popular live-action pictures as "Old Yeller" (1957), "The Shaggy Dog" (1957), "The Absent-Minded Professor" (1962) and "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones" (1964). However, the clean-cut image Disney constructed for Kirk was a flimsy shield for his offscreen lifestyle, which included rampant drug use, as well as homosexuality. The latter proved his downfall in 1965, when word about his proclivities led Disney to eject him from their fold. Kirk struggled to maintain his career throughout the 1960s before gaining control of his life in the 1970s and opening his own successful business. Despite the stigma that surrounded his dismissal, Kirk's best efforts made him one of Disney's most beloved and most recognizable young performers.

Born Thomas Lee Kirk in Louisville, KY on Dec. 10, 1941, he was the second of four sons by parents Louis and Lucy Kirk. The family relocated to a ranch near Pacoima, CA, where Kirk spent most of his childhood riding horses. At age 12, he was dared by an older brother to try out for a production of Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!" at the Pasadena Playhouse. There, he met and performed alongside Bobby Driscoll, a former child star whose own stratospheric rise and tragic fall would echo Kirk's life and career path. While appearing in the play, Kirk was discovered by talent agents, who landed him his television debut on the anthology series "TV Reader's Digest" (ABC, 1955-56). More small screen appearances followed, as well as "Freedom's Highway" (1956) a promotional short made by Greyhound Lines. That same year, he auditioned for a serial on "The Mickey Mouse Club" called "Young Davy Crockett." The project never came to fruition, but producers kept him in mind while casting another serial, this time based on the popular Hardy Boys mystery novels. His slight stature and youthful appearance made him the perfect choice to play Joe Hardy, younger brother to Tim Considine's Frank Hardy, in "The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure" (1956-57). Kirk was also sent by Disney to cover the 1956 Republican and Democratic presidential conventions for their newsreels, and lent his voice to a variety of their projects, including several travelogues and animated shorts.

The turning point for Kirk's career proved to be "Old Yeller" (1957), a heart-rending adaptation of the Fred Gipson novel about the bond between a young boy (Kirk) and his dog. The film's conclusion, which finds Kirk forced to shoot his beloved pet after it contracts rabies, became a pop culture touchstone and a litmus test for many viewers' fortitude, with those who admitted to crying during "Old Yeller" being universally branded as "softies." The film's popularity boosted Kirk's screen profile considerably; so much so that when he returned for the second Hardy Boys serial, "The Mystery of Ghost Farm" (1957), he was granted the majority of the screen time. By this time, he had surpassed co-star Considine as the top juvenile lead at Disney, and a favorite of company head Walt Disney himself.

Kirk was placed under contract with Disney in 1957, and soon graduated to feature films. He was the teenaged lead in "The Shaggy Dog," Disney's live-action comedy-fantasy about a young science whiz who accidentally turned himself into the title canine with the help of a magic ring. A major hit with young audience, it was the top-grossing film of 1957, besting even "Ben-Hur" (1957) at the box office. Kirk was quickly cast in Disney's big-budget adaptation of "Swiss Family Robinson" (1960) as yet another inventive young man, the Robinson's middle son, Ernst. Another giant success for Disney, it too earned the top rank at the 1960 box office tally, and further boosted Kirk's status as a teen idol. The Disney publicity department fed young female readers' eagerness for news about Kirk by concocting elaborate photo shoots that depicted him on dates with his "Shaggy Dog" co-star, Roberta Sherwood, and living what appeared to most eyes as an all-American lifestyle.

However, the reality of Tommy Kirk's existence was quite different from what the Disney press machine extolled. Off-camera, Kirk was something of a libertine with a taste for hard partying; he was also homosexual, a fact that put his career in serious jeopardy. Yet he did little to cover his tracks; late nights left him unprepared and bereft of energy for a day's shooting, which at one point earned him a serious scolding by screen veteran Fred MacMurray on the set of 1962's "Bon Voyage!" But Kirk was a major star for Disney; more importantly, his pictures made money, so the company was more than willing to look past his after-hours proclivities as long as they did not interfere too drastically with his work.

The year 1961 saw Kirk add another hit to his growing résumé with "The Absent-Minded Professor," an energetic science fiction-comedy about a genial scientist (MacMurray) who invents "flubber," a substance that gains energy when it strikes a hard surface. Kirk was again the juvenile lead, a high school basketball star who benefits from MacMurray's invention during an important game. After more supporting turns in "Babes in Toyland" (1961) and "Moon Pilot" (1962), Kirk was granted his first starring role in "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones" (1964) as yet another amiable yet accident-prone scientist-in-training who creates a helmet that allows him to read minds. Kirk's co-star was his female equivalent for Disney, former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, who generated little heat with her onscreen boyfriend.

"Merlin Jones" would prove to be Kirk's biggest success with Disney, as well as his Hollywood swan song. A woman approached Disney with a complaint about Kirk's relationship with her 15-year-old son, and Kirk's contract was summarily dropped. He was allowed to complete work on "The Monkey's Uncle" (1965), the sequel to "Merlin Jones," which also marked Funicello's last appearance in a Disney film. Both she and Kirk would head to American International Pictures (AIP), a low-budget company that had struck gold in 1963 with "Beach Party," an innocuous blend of surfing, sex comedy and slapstick. Kirk was quickly snapped up by AIP, which cast him as the male lead opposite Funicello in "Pajama Party" (1964), an absurd comedy about an alien (Kirk) who lands on Earth to study human mating rituals.

But again, Kirk's brief return to the spotlight was squelched by his own bad habits. On Christmas Eve 1964, he was arrested for drug possession at a party, which effectively killed his planned comeback in the John Wayne Western "The Sons of Katie Elder" (1965). He returned to diminished roles in a string of increasingly ridiculous films for AIP, including "Village of the Giants" (1965) and "Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine" (1966). By the late 1960s, Kirk had been dispatched to AIP's television division for no-budget horrors like "Mars Needs Women" (1967), a straight-faced remake of "Pajama Party," and efforts for exploitation filmmakers like Jack H. Harris with "Mother Goose A-Go-Go" (1966), Larry Buchanan with "It's Alive" (1968) and Al Adamson with "Blood of Ghastly Horror" (1972). During this period, Kirk's drug and alcohol problems ran unabated, which eventually hampered his speech.

In the 1970s, Kirk sought help for his dependency issues, and after gaining sobriety, started his own dry-cleaning business, which he managed well into the 1990s. Kirk also acted on occasion, though mostly in poverty-struck spoofs like "Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold" (1995) and "Billy Frankenstein" (1998). In 2006, the Disney Company inducted Kirk into their Disney Legends program, which recognized individuals who had made exceptional contributions to the company. The honor coincided with the release of his Hardy Boys series on DVD that same year.

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Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 The Garment Jungle (1957) Salesman
2.
 Scandal Incorporated (1956) Sidney Wood
3.
 Hoppy's Holiday (1947) Sheriff
4.
 The Well Groomed Bride (1946) Maitre d'hotel
5.
 A Night for Crime (1943) Hart
7.
 Outlaws of Pine Ridge (1942) Jefferson Cardeen
8.
 The Big Street (1942) Surgeon
9.
 The Showdown (1940) Harry Cole
10.
 Inside Story (1939) Attorney
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