Tommy Kirk, Child Star of 'Old Yeller' and 'The Shaggy Dog', Dead at 79

Tommy Kirk, who starred in several Disney movies as a child actor, died at his home in Las Vegas on Tuesday

Tommy Kirk
Tommy Kirk in Old Yeller. Photo: getty

Tommy Kirk, the child actor of Old Yeller and The Shaggy Dog, has died. He was 79.

His death was announced by his friend and child actor Paul Petersen on Facebook where he wrote, "TOMMY KIRK 9/28/2021."

"My friend of many decades, Tommy Kirk, was found dead last night. You will surely recall his string of Disney movies; 'Shaggy Dog. Ol' Yeller,' etc.," Petersen wrote. "Tommy was intensely private. He lived alone in Las Vegas, close to his friend…and 'Ol Yeller' co-star, Bev Washburn…and it was she who called me this morning."

"Tommy was gay and estranged from what remains of his blood-family," Petersen continued. "We in A Minor Consideration are Tommy's family. Without apology. We will take care of this."

He added, "Please know that Tommy Kirk loved you, his fans. You lifted him up when an Industry let him down in 1965. He was not bitter. His church comforted him. May God have mercy on his soul."

tommy kirk
Tommy Kirk. Myrna Litt/wikipedia

Fellow Mouseketeers Tommy Cole and Bobby Burgess remembered their longtime friend in a statement.

"Tommy and I palled around and even double dated as kids," said Cole. "To me he was a Disney icon."

Burgess looked back with humor, saying, "When Tommy was filming Old Yeller, he went to school on the lot with us Mouseketeers. I remember our teacher asked us what language we would like to learn. We all chose Spanish except for Tommy who wanted to learn German, and indeed he did!"

Kirk was the leading star of several Disney films including Swiss Family Robinson, The Absent-Minded Professor, its sequel Son of Flubber and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones.

In 1963, when Kirk was 21, he was fired from Disney after he was found to be in a relationship with another boy.

"I consider my teenage years as being desperately unhappy," Kirk said in a 1993 interview with Filmfax magazine, saying he realized he was gay when he was 17 or 18.

tommy kirk
Tommy Kirk in Swiss Family Robinson. Disney/Kobal/Shutterstock

"I knew I was gay, but I had no outlet for my feelings," Kirk said. "It was very hard to meet people and, at that time, there was no place to go to socialize. It wasn't until the early '60s that I began to hear of places where gays congregated."

He continued, "The lifestyle was not recognized and I was very, very lonely. Oh, I had some brief, very passionate encounters and as a teenager I had some affairs, but they were always stolen, back alley kind of things. They were desperate and miserable."

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"When I was about 17 or 18 years old, I finally admitted to myself that I wasn't going to change," he said. "I didn't know what the consequences would be, but I had the definite feeling that it was going to wreck my Disney career and maybe my whole acting career. It was all going to come to an end."

Despite being cut from Disney, Kirk went on to make films in the 1960s such as Pajama Party, Village of the Giants with Beau Bridges and Ron Howard and 1968's Mars Needs Women.

Tommy Kirk
Tommy Kirk. Film Favorites/Getty

Kirk struggled with drug addiction but eventually got sober and retired from acting in the mid-1970s. He had a series of odd jobs including at a carpet cleaning business where he stayed for 20 years.

In 2006, after being named a Disney Legend, Kirk recalled a moment between himself and Walt Disney outside of the Beverly Hills Hotel.

"He was with Hedda Hopper, the legendary columnist. He put his arm around me, and he said, 'This is my good-luck piece here,' to Hedda Hopper," Kirk recalled. "I never forgot that. That's the nicest compliment he ever gave me."

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