Old Yeller and Shaggy Dog Star Tommy Kirk Dies at 79

Tommy Kirk, an actor who was best known for starring in Disney films such as Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog, and Swiss Family Robinson, has passed away at the age of 79. The news was confirmed in a Facebook post by actor Paul Petersen, who revealed that the actor, who lived alone in Las Vegas, was found dead on Tuesday, September 28th. A cause of death is currently unknown at this time. In the years since his retirement, Kirk has spoken out about his experience of being outed as gay during the later portion of his career, which led to him being personally fired by Walt Disney.

Born Thomas Lee Kirk on December 10, 1941 in Louisville, Kentucky, Kirk's family relocated to California when he was just fifteen months old. Kirk's first known foray into acting occurred in 1954, when he auditioned for and earned a role in a Pasadena production of Ah, Wilderness!. That role led to him being signed by the Gertz agency, and making his onscreen debut a year later in TV Reader's Digest. Kirk proceeded to have supporting roles on television, but got his first big break as Joe Hardy in Disney's The Hardy Boys: The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure serials, which aired during The Mickey Mouse Club. Kirk would then be cast in the lead roles of Travis Coates in Old Yeller, and Wilby Daniels in The Shaggy Dog, two projects that led to him getting a long-term contract with Disney, with Walt Disney himself reportedly referring to the actor as his "good-luck charm."

Kirk would continue to work for the House of Mouse for nearly a decade, including on films such as Swiss Family Robinson, The Absent Minded Professor, Babes in Toyland, Bon Voyage, Son of Flubber, Savage Sam, and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones. His career took a turn during the filming of Merlin Jones in 1963, when Kirk began a romantic relationship with a boy he had met at a local swimming pool in Burbank. Kirk's mom discovered the affair and informed Disney, who then elected not to renew his contract.

Kirk was then hired by American International Pictures, where he was cast in movies such as Pajama Party, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, and Beach Ball, but was replaced by other actors after being arrested for marijuana possession in 1964. Kirk himself said that he almost died of a drug overdose several times, and amid his struggle with drugs, he did go on to make several (largely-panned) films for AIP. Kirk ultimately overcame his drug addiction and retired from acting in the mid-1970s, and moonlighted in jobs that included running a carpet cleaning business. He did return to acting a handful of times in the 1990s and 2000s, with his final credit being 2001's The Education of a Vampire. He was inducted into the Disney Legend hall of fame in 2006.

"As I look back on the whole thing, it gave me the chance to be in three or four movies that people will enjoy long after I'm gone," Kirk said in a 2006 interview with the Santa Fe New Mexican. "I heard Pat Boone say in an interview that the bombs are just as important as the hits, because they are all part of life. I'm not bitter. I'm not unhappy things didn't go the way I wanted them to go with my career. I tried to be a good actor and an ethical person. I'm still trying to be an ethical and honest person. But I'm glad to be retired. I live in the middle of a national park, basically, with miles and miles of wilderness. Redding ain't glamorous. Monte Carlo it is not. It's small-town life, and it suits me."

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Our thoughts are with Kirk's family, friends, and fans at this time.