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The Cinema of Tommy Kirk

From 1959 to 1965, Tommy Kirk films appeared in the annual list of the top twenty most popular films in North America every year. It was an astonishing run of commercial successes – The Shaggy Dog (1959), Swiss Family Robinson (1960), The Absent Minded Professor (1961), Bon Voyage (1962), Son of Flubber (1963), The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964) and The Monkey’s Uncle (1965).  In particular, it was Kirk’s appeal that propelled the last two films, originally shot for television, to stunning grosses. Yet within a few years he was washed up, basically forgotten.  His story remains one of the least known falls from graces in Hollywood history. 

I’ve long been interested in the career of Tommy Kirk. I would read about Disney as a teen film buff, see that he was in all these hit movies and note how he sort of… vanished. He didn’t die or retire; he didn’t have a famous “tragic child star” end like, say, Bobby Driscoll; he just seemed to become an un-person. There were good (if horrible) reasons for this, as we shall find out, but his career achievements should definitely be better known and more celebrated.

Kirk was born in Louisville Kentucky in 1941, with his family moving to Los Angeles shortly afterwards. Kirk’s elder brother Joe wanted to be an actor, and in 1954 attended an audition for Eugene O’Neil’s “Ah Wilderness” at the famous Pasadena Playhouse; Tommy decided to tag along. Joe lost his part to Bobby Driscoll, who had just left Disney and was beginning his descent into unemployment, drug addiction and death, but there was another small role available;Tommy auditioned on a whim and wound up cast. He was seen in the production by an agent, and a career was launched.

Tommy Kirk was in heavy demand as an actor almost immediately. Watching his early performances it’s easy to see why – he was wide-eyed, gangly, keen and immensely likeable… the very picture of Eisenhower Era American youth, unaffected and natural, surprisingly non-annoying, extremely easy to cast as someone’s kid brother, or son, or neighbour. He appeared in countless episodes of TV shows as well as the short feature Down Liberty Road (1956).

It was almost inevitable in a way that the Disney organisation would come calling, and they did, casting Kirk as one of the leads of The Hardy Boys: The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure (1956). This was a serialised adaptation of the famous mystery stories, broadcast in nineteen separate 15-minute installments during episodes of The Mickey Mouse Club; Kirk played Joe Hardy alongside Tim Considine as his brother Frank. Watching the serial today it’s very much an item of its time, but Kirk’s performance is a wonder – relaxed, energetic, a complete natural; he’s not as conventionally good looking as Considine but he seems more at home on screen. He was the perfect Disney star. 

The studio knew it too – they hired Kirk and former Mouseketeer Judy Harriet to attend both the Republican and Democratic presidential nominating conventions in 1956 for newsreel specials that later appeared on The Mickey Mouse Show. Kirk never became a mousketeer but he hosted short travelogues and voiced over segments; he and Considine also reprised their roles in The Mystery of Ghost Farm (1957). 

Disney then gave Kirk the lead role in Old Yeller (1957), based on Frank Gipson’s classic tale of a boy who learns to love a stray mongrel dog… then has to kill him when the dog contracts rabies. While Dorothy McGuire and Fess Parker were top billed, it’s Kirk’s movie all the way – the film is about his character’s journey to maturity, having to look after the farm while Pa is away, dealing with an annoying brother, as well as the turmoil of Old Yeller.  He does a marvellous job and the film was a big success. It’s probably Kirk’s best remembered film, achieving some sort of cultural immortality when Billy Murray’s character in Stripes (1981) makes everyone admit they cried when Old Yeller got shot. Kevin Corcoran played Kirk’s whiny little brother and Disney liked that combination so much the two would be teamed several more times in the future (unfortunately – his performances date less well).

A decade or two earlier Kirk might have been launched as a  star on the basis of Old Yeller alone, but in the late 1950s Hollywood the only studio consistently making family films was Disney. Still, he kept busy guesting on television, then Disney called again with The Shaggy Dog (1959), written by Bill Walsh. This is known as a Fred MacMurray movie and MacMurray is top billed but like Old Yeller it’s actually Kirk’s film – he’s the character who turns into a dog and who drives most of the action (the film seems devised so that MacMurray does a little work as possible – he sits down in most scenes and only appears in a few sets). Corcoran, Considine and Annette Funicello also featured.  

The Shaggy Dog was the definition of a “sleeper hit” – Walt Disney had pitched the idea for television and been rejected; annoyed, he shot it as a feature on the backlot in black and white and it grossed a fortune, becoming Disney’s most profitable film ever. The movie kicked off a whole bunch of comedies with a slight fantastical element that powered Disney film division for the next two decades. Much of the credit went to MacMurray; a lot of the credit should have gone to Kirk, whose easy-going boy next door charm made him the ideal American teen.

Disney decided to offer Kirk a long term contract and put him in their expensive adventure film, Swiss Family Robinson (1960), directed by Ken Annakin. He, James MacArthur and Corcoran play the very American children of John Mills and Dorothy McGuire who get shipwrecked on a tropical island. While Mills gets top billing, it’s Kirk and MacArthur who power the second act, in their love triangle with Janet Munro. Kirk also has the juiciest part, as the one member of the family who wants badly to get off the island. The film was a huge hit, became a deserved classic, and is the movie Kirk remains most proud of today.

Disney reteamed him with Fred MacMurray in The Absent Minded Professor (1961), written by Walsh and directed by Stevenson. Unlike The Shaggy Dog this film genuinely did belong to MacMurray; Kirk’s part was relatively small, playing the jock son of Keenan Wynn. The film – surprisingly sly and subversive – was very popular.

Disney kept Kirk busy, putting him in support parts the musical Babes in Toyland (1962), as the geeky assistant of Edd Wynn, and the satirical comedy Moon Pilot (1962). Both these films were box office disappointments and would have been better had Kirk been given more to do – or, come to think of it, played the male lead, instead of Tommy Sands and Tom Tryon respectively. Male actors who excel in light comedy were exceedingly rare, then as now, as Disney was coming to appreciate.

Kirk and Funicello appeared in two TV movies made for Disney’s TV show that were released theatrically outside America, both shot in Europe: The Horsemasters (1961), and Escapade in Florence (1962). The Horesemasters, a horse riding drama, was really a vehicle for Janet Munro but Escapade in Florence (1962) very much puts Kirk front and center, and he is charming as an American abroad getting into hijinks with art thieves.   

He was one of the family in Bon Voyage (1962), a comedy written by Walsh about an American family going abroad; MacMurray was dad, Jane Wyman was mom, and Kirk, Corcoran and Deborah Walley played the kids. Kirk has fun as the eldest son, constantly trying to pick up women. It’s interesting to contrast his performance with that of Michael Callan, who plays the man chasing Deborah Walley in the same film – when Kirk tries to seduce its hapless and inoffensive but Callan gives off a dangerous, wife-beating vibe. There was a safeness to Kirk that made him immensely appealing to Disney audiences.

Disney put him in  two sequels, Son of Flubber (1963) a follow up to The Absent Minded Professor, playing a bigger role, but still very much second fiddle to Fred MacMurray, and Savage Sam (1963), a sequel to Old Yeller, again with Corcoran. Neither were as good as the originals in quality – both felt pointless, especially Savage Sam, though Kirk’s work was professional.

The studio then gave him another vehicle, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964), written by Walsh and directed by Stevenson; Kirk played a college student inventor alongside Funicello. This was originally made for TV but Disney decided to release it theatrically in the US  – whereupon the film surprised everyone by being one of the biggest hits of the year, making over $4 million. There was no Fred MacMurray to share the praise this time – Disney knew they had one of the most popular male actors in the country under contract.

Then something happened.

Kirk was gay. He had an affair with a teenager he met at the local pool; the boy’s mother complained to Disney, who fired Kirk. Money counted, but the brand name of Disney counted more.

Still, the news did not make the press and Kirk was snapped up by American International Pictures, who focused on films for the teen audience. They gave him the lead in the fourth Beach Party movie, Pajama Party (1964), reuniting him with Funicello. It’s a colourful, lively musical, directed by Don Weis like a comic book, in which Kirk plays a Martian who comes to earth; Kirk even sings a duet with Funicello. One of the best of the Beach Party series, it was a box office success and proved the movies did not need Frankie Avalon. 

AIP signed Kirk for a follow up with Funicello, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), and Gene Corman wanted him for another teen movie, Beach Ball (1965). Most notably, Disney called him back to make a Merlin Jones sequel, The Monkey’s Uncle (1965). Following that he was going to co-star with John Wayne and Dean Martin in a Western, The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) – a film that would give him exposure to a new kind of mass audience; it would also be the first feature he would make for a major Hollywood studio outside Disney (Paramount). Kirk, it seemed, had dodged a bullet.

Then something happened again.

On Christmas Eve, 1964 Kirk was arrested for suspicion of possession of marijuana at a house in Hollywood… and this did make the newspapers. The district attorney’s office subsequently refused to file a complaint against him on the marijuana charge but the city attorney’s office filed an illegal drugs charge because police officers found a vial of barbiturates in Kirk’s car. This charge was dismissed by a judge in early January, 1965 when Kirk’s attorney established that the barbiturates had been prescribed by a physician.

A drug arrest scandal was survivable in Hollywood, even back then, especially if it suited your image – Robert Mitchum’s imprisonment for marijuana possession in 1948 arguably helped his career. But it was trickier if you were meant to be the all-American boy. Kirk was replaced on Wild Bikini by Dwayne Hickman, on Beach Ball by Edd Byrnes and on Katie Elder by Michael Anderson Jnr.

When the noise died down, Kirk found he could still get work, especially since The Monkey’s Uncle (1965), released after the drug bust, proved to be another hit. AIP brought him back into the fold for The Weird World of Dr Goldfoot (1965) and TV and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966), with Walley and Weis. Bert I. Gordon gave him the lead in Village of the Giants (1965) alongside Beau Bridges, and he got leads in movies that tail ended the beach party cycle, like Catalina Caper (1967) and It’s a Bikini World (1967) with Walley.

Maybe Kirk could have turned it around. There was demand in Hollywood for bright young leading men all through the late sixties and seventies – Kirk could have taken roles played by Beau Bridges, say, or even Dean Jones – every Dean Jones part at Disney (eg The Love Bug) feels as though it was originally written for Tommy Kirk. The Dexter Riley college films with Ken Russell (The Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes, etc) could have starred Kirk. Even if Disney hadn’t taken him back he could have reinvented himself as a counter-culture figure, like Dean Stockwell, or a character actor like Roddy McDowell. He could have segued into television, like Tim Considine, or become an executive, like Kevin Corcoran.

But that drug arrest? It wasn’t a one-off mistake. By the mid 60s Kirk had developed a serious drug problem which was badly affecting his life. It didn’t help that in a period in his career when he needed to take stock – do some theatre, say, or hold out and audition for a supporting role in a really good movie – he kept taking gigs as leading men in low budget pictures. He made two films in Texas for the legendary Larry Buchanan, Mars Needs Women (1967) and It’s Alive (1969), did the insane LSD comedy Unkissed Bride (1966) and made a little-seen car racing film, Track of Thunder. By the time of It’s Alive Kirk was looking physically unwell on screen. He did two films for Duke Kelly, Ride the Whirlwind (1971) – a weird biker-slash-My Lai drama, and My Name is Legend (1975), a Western that was never released, and the legendary-in-its-own-way Al Adamson horror film, Blood of Ghastly Horror (1971). He spent all his money, and became near unemployable.

The story does have a happy ending. By the mid 70s Kirk managed to kick drugs, avoiding a Bobby Driscoll style finale to his life. He set up his own carpet cleaning business and made a living out of that for twenty years, enabling him to retire. He received occasional acting offers, notably from Fred Olen Ray who had a soft spot for actors from yesteryear. He began to appear regularly on the convention circuit, and outlived contemporaries such as Funicello, Walley and Corcoran.

I met Tommy Kirk at an autograph show a year ago. He was reflective, polite, philosophical, clearly well-read – he quoted Wordsworth and Coleridge. He spoke with great affection and admiration for Bill Walsh, Robert Stevenson and Fred MacMurray, wasn’t overly fond of the beach party movies he starred in, and expressed no desire to get back into acting.

I think Tommy Kirk was a screen natural who found the perfect studio for his skills at Disney – but he did it at a time when he had things to figure out about himself. It took him a decade to figure them out, but he did. Maybe he didn’t fulfill his cinematic potential but his CV still has plenty of great performances on it.

About Stephen Vagg

Stephen Vagg is the author of "Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood" the first biography of Australian actor Rod Taylor which subsequently adapted into the documentary feature, "Rod Taylor: Pulling No Punches". He has written extensively on film and theatre history, including groundbreaking pieces on Alec Coppel, Frank Harvey and Alfred Rolfe. He is also an AFI-nominated and AWGIE-winning screenwriter, whose credits include "Neighbours" and "Home and Away" as well as two feature films, "All My Friends Are Leaving Brisbane" and "Jucy"; he was head writer on "Neighbours" for over three years. His plays have been performed around the world, including Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and London.

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