Really, part of why I started doing this series was that Kevin Corcoran died. Not all that long after Dean Jones. The Disney Channel stars of my childhood, those that were still alive—it’s been a long time for Fred MacMurray—are of an age where it’s not unreasonable for them to start dying, and I wanted to honour them. And then I thought, “Well, why wait until they die?” Mostly, I am sticking to people past a certain age, or people whose careers aren’t exactly booming. Tommy Kirk, at 74, is both.
He had dabbled in acting before he started working for Walt Disney, but that’s really where most of us came to know him. In 1956, he played Joe Hardy on the Disney adaptation of The Hardy Boys. In 1957, he took care of the family farm—and family dog—as Travis Coates. He was Wilby Daniels, of course, transforming into a sheepdog. He made a dozen or so movies for Disney, ending as Merlin Jones—and then was dropped.
I’d always kind of wondered about that, when I was a kid. When I saw more recent pictures, I realized that he wasn’t much of a looker, that adulthood had not been kind to him, but that couldn’t have been it, because Merlin and Wilby looked pretty much alike, except that one was in colour and one was in black and white. So what could have happened?
Apparently, two things—one, which kept him out of The Sons of Katie Elder, was that he was at a party where people were smoking marijuana. I don’t even think anyone suspected he was, but in Hollywood at the time, that was enough. The other was that he’s gay.
I don’t know how open he was about it, though even as a child, I was aware that Merlin and Annette Funicello’s Jennifer didn’t have a heck of a lot of chemistry. He says that there was a boy from Burbank that they’d found out he’d been having an affair with; he was twenty-one and the boy was fifteen. He also says that his childhood was desperately unhappy because he knew he was gay and knew he couldn’t be open about it. He’s also pretty sure Jane Wyman, with whom he costarred in Bon Voyage, didn’t like him because of his sexuality, which he says means she probably didn’t like a lot of people.
I didn’t know this until a year or two ago, when I looked up what had happened to him. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have cared. Of course, I was growing up in the ’80s, and that meant, among other things, that I knew more about what being gay even was than the kids who’d grown up with Tommy Kirk movies in the theatre as first run features. And, okay, that would have made the persistent pairing with Annette Funicello even more strained; apparently, the studio even had them go on “actual” dates, to keep up the charade. No chance that Wilby and Tim Considine’s Buzz would be swooning over the foreign boy down the street, is there? And let’s face it, his parents still needed a girl for Ernst just for biological reasons, if they wanted to continue their colony.
But a gay actor today probably still couldn’t have Tommy Kirk’s adolescent career while being open about his sexuality. There’s just no place for it. Tommy Kirk apparently gave up acting pretty much altogether after a drug overdose or three, and he went off to be an upholsterer. I hope he was happier at it, but as a symbol, he makes me sad. Not just because of what happened to him back in the sixties, but because of what we have not yet learned from it.