The Original Mickey Mouse Club Show


Tommy Kirk             Dec 10, 1941

Sunlight and Shadow

Serial actor turned film star, there was always more to Tommy Kirk than met the eye. The most successful MMC serial performer, Tommy would flourish at Disney from 1956 thru 1965, but gradually fade away thereafter as a freelance actor.

Background

Thomas Lee Kirk was born December 10, 1941, in Louisville, Kentucky, the second of four boys for Lucy and Louis Kirk. The Kirks moved to a ranch near Pacoima, California, where Tommy and his brothers grew up fishing and riding horses. When he was twelve, his older brother Joe dared him to try out for a part at the Pasadena Playhouse. Tommy landed a juvenile role in Eugene O'Neill's Ah Wilderness!, playing alongside Will Rogers Jr and seventeen-year-old Bobby Driscoll, whose thoughtfulness the novice actor would always remember.

From the Playhouse, Tommy went to television, doing a western episode for the drama anthology series TV Reader's Digest in 1955. That same year he did his first film, a forgettable patriotic pastiche called Down Liberty Road (1956, later retitled Freedom Highway). Small parts in several more TV shows followed in the spring of 1956: Gunsmoke, Frontier, and two episodes for The Loretta Young Show.

Performance

In April 1956, Tommy auditioned for a The Mickey Mouse Club serial that was never made, Young Davy Crockett. He was instead hired for the part of Joe Hardy. Tommy was short and looked much younger than he really was, enabling him to play the little brother to an actor near his own age. This was a significant career milestone, for Tommy would get co-star billing with the successful film veteran and rising teen idol, Tim Considine. The Hardy Boys: The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure was filmed in June and early July 1956, for broadcast that October, at the start of the show's second season.

Tommy's broadcast debut on the MMC came in August 1956, when the Disney studio had him and former Mouseketeer Judy Harriet attend both the Republican and Democratic presidential nominating conventions, for newsreel specials. These specials were inserted in place of the original newsreel segments for two rerun shows that August, and have not been seen since then. Tommy also hosted short travelogues for the serial segment of the show's second season. He did the voice-over narration for The Eagle Hunters, and then co-hosted two more travelogues with Annette Funicello. Tommy also did voice-dubbing work for the Danish-made film Vesterhavsdrenge, shown on the MMC as the serial Boys of the Western Sea.

Surprisingly, Tommy wasn't yet under long-term contract to Disney, and did two more appearances on different television shows during late 1956 and early 1957. But with the success of the Hardy Boys serial, Tommy was hired for the juvenile lead in Old Yeller in January 1957, and from then on would be under exclusive contract with Disney until 1964. After filming on Old Yeller completed, Tommy was assigned to start making the second Hardy Boys serial. By this time, Tommy had grown much taller, matching Tim Considine in height. Tommy had also grown in acting stature and prestige; The Hardy Boys: The Mystery of Ghost Farm was very much his serial, with co-star Tim seemingly just dropping in from time to time.

Like most of the serial stars, Tommy had little interaction with the Mouseketeers, other than Annette. He got along fine with his adult and teenage co-workers, but never formed any close friendships. Tommy appeared with the Mouseketeers in a September 1957 episode of Disneyland promoting the stillborn film project, The Rainbow Road to Oz. He wasn't cast in that project, but the warmth with which Walt Disney greeted him and Kevin Corcoran on camera signaled his coming ascendancy. With the release of Old Yeller in December, Tommy's popularity with fans and critics grew to the point where he outpaced Tim Considine as the leading teenage male at Disney.

Aftermath

When the Mickey Mouse Club wound down production in late fall of 1957, Tommy was one of the handful of kids kept on contract, along with Tim Considine, Annette, and Kevin Corcoran. Tommy, like Annette, would finish high school at the Disney studio. Newcomer Roberta Shore was also retained, and with the other three would feature with Tommy in The Shaggy Dog (1959). This also marked Tommy's first exposure to another of his constant Disney co-stars, Fred MacMurray. Disney publicity had the four teenagers go on date layouts, and even implied there was something between Roberta and Tommy (there wasn't). Following this, Tommy did an episode of the television program The Millionaire in early 1959.

Tommy next played middle brother Ernest in Swiss Family Robinson (1960), which had a better than usual Disney cast and story. One cast member in particular may have served as a unfortunate role model for Tommy. Janet Munro was a Scottish actress whom Walt Disney had signed to a five picture contract. She made four films for the studio, all quite good and successful, but she was a free-spirit who wasn't going to bow to Disney standards of behavior. Tommy worked with her again on The Horsemasters (1961), filmed in England. Upon return to the USA from also starring in this movie, Annette wrote disapprovingly of the wild antics by cast and crew in her column for 'Teen magazine, while Walt fired Janet Munro.

Tommy had developed a taste for the sporting-life, and his off-camera escapades began to affect his attitude and behavior on the set, leading to a monumental scolding by co-star Fred MacMurray, and some re-evaluation of his star potential by the studio. Popular in The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), Tommy was given only brief cameos in Babes in Toyland (1961) and Moon Pilot (1962), and a reprise role in Son of Flubber (1963). His one starring role during this time was for Escapade in Florence (1962), which didn't have a North American theatrical release, being shown as a two-part episode of The Wonderful World of Color. Annette was again his romantic co-star, an unexciting coupling that became more awkward with each picture.

Savage Sam (1963), a continuation of the Old Yeller story, gave Tommy a rare dramatic action role, though the storyline strained credibility. But Tommy's next picture, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964) marked at once his high-point of popularity and the beginning of his downfall at Disney. Though he had long tried to keep his sexual orientation a secret, Tommy's increasing lack of self-control in his personal life was making it hard to conceal. The studio, including Walt Disney, was certainly aware that he was gay, but did nothing about it so long as it wasn't threatening to become a public issue.

In 1993, Tommy did a now famous interview with Richard Valley for Scarlet Street magazine, in which he discussed his lifestyle, past substance abuse, and the circumstances of his dismissal from Disney. Tom, at age 23, was carrying on an affair with a fifteen-year-old boy he had picked up from a public pool. The boy's mother went to Walt Disney to complain, and Walt decided Tommy had become a liability. His contract was dropped, though the studio did allow him to come back for a Merlin Jones sequel, The Monkey's Uncle (1965), which coincidently was Annette's last Disney film as well.

A headline-making drug bust at a Hollywood party soon after resulted in Tommy's name appearing in print, and killed his chance for a good role in a John Wayne movie. Tom slipped into a career depression, making progressively worse movies, starting with Village of the Giants (1965). The only consolation was, as Tommy later explained, that he was so stoned during the making of these flicks that he doesn't really remember much about them.

After his acting career expired in the seventies, Tommy finally found the willpower to kick drugs and alcohol, though they left their mark on his once fluid speech. He returned to his native Kentucky, and started a rug-cleaning business from scratch, which he ran successfully through the early 1990's. He eventually sold that business and returned to California, where he still does an occasional acting stint, makes personal appearances at fan conventions, and takes part in documentary features for Disney DVD's.

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