The one-time Disney star had a career dogged by scandal, but his movies – and his life – are a fascinating study of changing 1960s culture.
These days, we’re used to the idea of Disney stars going off the rails and rebelling against their wholesome images. It’s almost become a rite of passage and a calculated career movie for the likes of Christina Aquilera and Miley Cyrus to distance themselves from their squeaky clean teen star image as they position themselves for more mainstream pop success, even though Disney is hardly the business it used to be in the days when even a PG-rated movie from the studio would raise eyebrows. Rebellion in those days was a much riskier proposition. Just look at the career of Tommy Kirk, who went from Disney’s bright-eyed, fresh-faced teen star to slumming it in films by Al Adamson and Larry Buchanan within the space of a decade.
Kirk was born in Louisville, Kentucky and at the age of thirteen, accompanied his brother Joe to a theatrical audition in Pasadena. In the classic tradition, Joe failed his audition but Tommy, who wasn’t even particularly interested in acted, was cast in Eugene O’Neill’s Ah! Wilderness. It was a small part in a small production, but it lit a fire in the boy and, more importantly, got him an agent. Kirk’s fresh-faced wholesomeness soon caught the attention of casting directors and by 1957, he was something of a regular on TV. By this time, he’d made his Disney debut as part of the cast of a Mickey Mouse Club serial, and would soon be cast as the (human) lead in the sentimental Old Yeller, which led to continual work and an eventual contract with the company. Kirk was often cast alongside Annette Funicello as the epitome of American youth, and Kirk’s career was a series of successes – The Shaggy Dog, Swiss Family Robinson, The Absent-Minded Professor and its sequel Son of Flubber, Moon Pilot and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones amongst his hits for the company.
but Kirk had a scandalous secret. Not that it was much of a secret, and not – by modern standards – remotely scandalous. Kirk was gay, and this not only led to clashes with some co-stars like Jane Wyman (“She was very mean to me. She went out of her way to be shitty… she was a total bitch and I think she was homophobic” he said of her) but also put Kirk in a difficult position with Disney. After all, the studio was the very definition of innocence and decency, and homosexuality was illegal across most of America in the 1960s. Disney, like other studios, may have been willing to turn a blind eye to the sexual activity of its performers as long as it was kept quiet, but was quick to act once their sexuality became public – and the studio was a notoriously conservative employer and very twitchy about their public image. The merest hint of impropriety was all that was needed for someone to become persona non grata.
In Kirk’s case, he was outed in a way that would almost certainly still destroy his career – and possibly see him imprisoned – today. While filming The Misadventures of Merlin Jones in 1963, he began a relationship with a boy that he had met at a Burbank swimming pool. The problem was that the boy was only fifteen years old. Kirk was 21. While laws regarding the age of consent might not matter in a case where the relationship would be illegal regardless of how old those involved were, it certainly didn’t help Kirk’s situation. The boy’s mother found out about the relationship and made a complaint – not to the police, curiously, but to Disney. The company immediately fired Kirk, with Walt Disney personally informing Kirk that his services were no longer required. Of course, money speaks louder than morality in Hollywood, and once The Misadventures of Merlin Jones proved a big box office hit in 1964, Disney put aside their disapproval long enough for Kirk to come back and make a sequel, The Monkey’s Uncle. And then they let him go again.
kirk’s firing remained an industry secret – Disney was hardly going to issue a press release saying that one of their biggest stars was gay. So Kirk was able to move on and soon found himself reteamed with Funicello – by now the queen of the beach party movie – at AIP, where they co-starred in The Pajama Party. This was another 1964 box office hit and you might have expected Kirk’s star to be on the ascendence, freed from the Disney straitjacket. Unfortunately, on Christmas Eve that year, he was arrested for possession of marijuana – again, no big deal now but quite the scandal at the time. He was also charged with possessing barbiturates and while both charges were eventually dismissed, the bad publicity that resulted from his arrest saw him dropped from How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, The Sons of Katie Elder and Beach Ball, all of which he was scheduled to make in 1965. His career, it seemed, was over.
Not all producers turned their back on him, though – for the lower-budget movie maker, having a proven box office star become both available and affordable overrode any doubts about his public image. Bert I. Gordon cast him in Village of the Giants, which was a reasonable success, and he also appeared in the obscure Catalina Caper. But when The Monkey’s Uncle proved another box office success, producers realised that the public was a lot more chilled about drug busts – especially ones that didn’t end in conviction – than they were. Once again, Hollywood morality only goes so far – if someone is box office gold, it doesn’t matter what they’ve done. For AIP, which was making films aimed at the teen market anyway, the firing of Kirk had already seemed hasty – the times they were a-changin’, and no teenager was going to be scandalised at the idea of someone smoking pot.
Kirk was quickly cast in Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, It’s A Bikini World and the TV special The Weird World of Dr Goldfoot, made to promote Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine. Some readers might see a theme running through these films, and sure enough, AIP had run the whole Bikini Beach movie concept into the ground in just a few years. Ghost in the Invisible Bikini was an unexpected flop and It’s A Bikini World wasn’t released until 1967. Kirk’s career revival had been thoroughly tied to these films and suddenly, he found himself out of favour once again. This time, it wasn’t a scandal that did him in, but simply changing tastes – audiences were increasingly bored of all-American innocence and wanted something a bit edgier, and Kirk was not remotely suited to making that change.
In 1966, he made a forgettable car racing film, Track of Thunder, and The Unkissed Bride – aka Mother Goose A Go-Go – which was a pseudo psychedelic sex comedy made by Jack Harris. It was not a success, being a typical attempt to cash in on youth trends by people completely out of touch with youth culture. Kirk was taking more and more drugs and finding less and less work, which led him to make a pair of sci-fi films for Larry Buchanan – Mars Needs Women and It’s Alive, both shot in 1968, are not Buchanan’s finest work, and were sold directly to TV. Kirk later described himself as “an idiot” for making the films and called Buchanan “a cinematic serial killer”. This was not his lowest point though.
In 1970, he joined the list of has-beens who found work with Al Adamson, appearing in Blood of Ghastly Horror. The film was a rehash of 1965’s Psycho A-Go Go, which Adamson had already tried unsuccessfully to rework with new footage in 1969 as The Man with the Electronic Brain. This third version rebooted the film from a crime drama into a horror movie, and Kirk’s newly-shot scenes did little to make the whole thing a more coherent experience. I quite like all three cuts of this movie personally, but this was hardly the way to revive a sagging career. Worse still, both this and Ride the Hot Wind, which he shot in 1970, were non-union pictures and Kirk came close to losing his Screen Actors Guild membership by participating in them.
Kirk came out as gay in 1973. By this time, homosexuality was legal in most US states, but it was still unusual for actors to publicly announce their sexuality for fear of how it might affect their careers. It was a brave move, though admittedly, for Kirk there wasn’t much of a career left to be affected. In 1975, he made the western My Name is Legend, which was barely released, and this seems to have been the last straw. Just ten years after being one of the biggest box office draws in America, Kirk packed it all in. He worked as a waiter and chauffeur in Los Angeles and eventually set up his own carpet cleaning business, something that he did for the next two decades – a longer career than his screen acting one. He would make guest appearances in a few low budget films – Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold, Billy Frankenstein – during the 1990s, when he had become part of the nostalgia scene, appearing at conventions across America.
By his own admission, Tommy Kirk threw his career away as much as it was taken from him. In a different time, his sexuality would not have worked against him in the same way as it did back in the mid-Sixties and perhaps he would have had better people around him to help him deal with both his success and his private life. On the other hand, he might well have been publicly demonised as an abuser in the #metoo world. It seems as though he emerged just at the wrong time – when the demand for Disneyfied young leads was diminishing and society was changing. In a way he is a part of that change more than people realise – a gay man, a drug user and someone who fought back against the Hollywood system, Kirk was perhaps the first of the Disney rebels, back when that still meant something.
Tommy Kirk died on September 28, 2021, at the age of 79.
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