I’ve always liked Tommy Kirk. I grew up, as I’ve mentioned before, on an era of The Disney Channel where we got to see the older movies a lot. Disney+ doesn’t have most of his movies on the service even yet. It feels as though mostly they have the ones they wouldn’t be able to avoid without outcry. There isn’t even Son of Flubber, much less Moon Pilot (which even I have never seen) or the Merlin Jones movies. In a way, Disney is, even now, scrubbing him from their past. I don’t think he was surprised. He was a big star for them, and they treated him cruelly.
Thomas Lee Kirk was, for many years, Disney’s Boy Next Door. Even if “next door” was a tropical island with a fully impossible ecosystem. He was, routinely, Kevin Corcoran’s big brother. He was the Shaggy Dog, and he was Arliss Coates, and he was Joe Hardy. Disney was promoting Kirk—but their way. He was sent on arranged dates with Annette Funicello and other women. Eventually, the parents of a fifteen-year-old boy told Disney about 21-year-old Kirk’s relationship with their son, and he was fired. A dropped marijuana charge pretty well ended his acting career.
Yes, I’ve written about Tommy Kirk before. He was one of the first people I covered for Celebrating the Living, well over five years ago now. And, yes, part of my fondness for him is those old Disney movies. But when I discovered how poorly used he was by the industry, I also began to pity him in a way that only got stronger because he’s just not discussed. I’m glad he eventually found happiness as a furniture upholsterer, but he was definitely misused by the industry. And you can blame Disney except the part where Disney didn’t make The Sons of Katie Elder, which might have launched a new phase to his acting career.
He was open about the difficulties of being a gay child in the ’50s, and particularly a gay child working for Disney. They were, in no small part because of Walt himself, a conservative studio. Even now, they work very hard to project a specific “family-friendly” image in a lot of ways; in those days, it was that and Walt’s own personal prejudices. Not to mention various of the people they hired. Fred MacMurray was apparently not terribly kind to Tommy; Jane Wyman was actively harsh to him.
Tommy Kirk deserves to be better remembered. I fully expect his passing to be missed—he died two days ago, and I’m just hearing about it for the first time this morning. It’s not entirely that I think he should be a gay icon; I’m not even sure it’s what he wanted. And there is that relationship with a teenager. If nothing else, though, he did have a fine career as a child actor, and he managed to survive a number of hard years after his time with Disney and AIP and come out on the other side, and that’s something to note.