R.I.P. Tommy Kirk, star of Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog, and the Hardy Boys of The Mickey Mouse Club
He was named a Disney Legend for his work in The Absent-Minded Professor, Swiss Family Robinson, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones and more.
As it often happens with child stars, Tommy Kirk was discovered by accident. His older brother, Joe, wanted a part in a Pasadena Playhouse production of the Eugene O'Neill play Ah, Wilderness! Tommy went to the audition as well and ended up with a role while his brother didn't. The play also featured Disney star Bobby Driscoll, who had already appeared in Treasure Island and voiced Peter Pan. The younger Kirk brother didn't know it at the time, but he was about to join the Disney ranks himself.
Tommy Kirk's stage performance was noticed by a Hollywood agent. Kirk was soon signed and working regularly on TV. He appeared in Gunsmoke and The Loretta Young Show before playing Joe Hardy, with fellow Disney actor and My Three Sons star Tim Considine as Frank Hardy, in Hardy Boys mysteries first seen as segments in The Mickey Mouse Club.
Kirk became an instant star two years after his start in television when he played Travis Coates in Old Yeller. His incredibly moving performance still resonates today as his most memorable role.
Kirk then became Disney's go-to actor for the next eight years. He was a teenager who becomes a sheepdog in The Shaggy Dog, he was shipwrecked with his family in Swiss Family Robinson and he had two run-ins with the zany, flying substance flubber in The Absent-Minded Professor and Son of Flubber.
He also starred in the vacation comedy Bon Voyage!, his fourth (out of five) times playing the brother of frequent Disney child actor Kevin Corcoran and also his fourth (and last) time starring alongside My Three Sons dad Fred MacMurray.
Kirk played college genius Merlin Jones in two movies opposite Annette Funicello, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, and The Monkey's Uncle. In 1965, he starred in the cult comedy Village of the Giants with Ron Howard and Johnny Crawford, as seen on Svengoolie.
Though Kirk's Disney partnership ended abruptly after The Monkey's Uncle, he reconciled with the studio years later and was named a Disney Legend in 2006 for his numerous contributions.
Kirk said at the time, "I want to be remembered for my Disney work, like Swiss Family Robinson and Old Yeller." He even recalled a memorable moment with Walt Disney himself. "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. I never forgot that. That's the nicest compliment he ever gave me."
Tommy Kirk passed away this week. He was 79.