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Remembering 'Troubled' Former Disney Star Tommy Kirk

by El Destino

2021-10-04 23:56:28

You know him as the Disney child actor who shot Ol' Yeller and turned into The Shaggy Dog. On the Mickey Mouse Club, he'd played one of The Hardy Boys. But in 1950s Disney America, Tommy Kirk had a mysterious secret all his own. He was gay.

"Growing up under strict Baptist parents," remembers the Washington Post, "Mr. Kirk said his teenage years were 'desperately unhappy'..." And the Post finds other glimpses of Kirk's unheralded struggle. "When I was about 17 or 18 years old, I finally admitted to myself that I wasn't going to change," Kirk remembered later in an interview with Filmfax magazine. Walt Disney himself personally fired Kirk — and a marijuana possession charge that year (later dropped) wouldn't help his career. Soon the movies got worse — like It's a Bikini World, Ghost in the Invisible Bikini and of course, Mars Needs Women. But Kirk had other 1960s-style problems too... "I was drinking, taking pills, and smoking grass..." Kirk told Filmfax (in an interview quoted on his Wikipedia page). "I came into a whole lot of money, but I threw a lot of parties and spent it all.... I had no self-discipline and I almost died of a drug overdose a couple of times. It's a miracle that I'm still around."

In that 1993 interview Kirk shows honesty and integrity. ("I don't blame anybody but myself and my drug abuse for my career going haywire. I'm not ashamed of being gay, never have been, and never will be. For that I make no apologies. I have no animosity toward anybody because the truth is, I wrecked my own career.")

The great unsung triumph of Kirk's life may have been that he found his way onto a better path. Eventually he studied acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, Wikipedia remembers:

Kirk got over his drug addiction and gave up acting in the mid-1970s. He worked as a waiter and a chauffeur before going into the carpet-cleaning business in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, an operation which he ran for 20 years. In 1990, Kirk said he was "poor", adding, "I made a lot of money and I spent it all. No bitterness. No regrets. I did what I did ... I wasn't the boy next door anymore. I could pretend to be for a few hours a day in front of the camera. But I couldn't live it. I'm human."

This week Tommy Kirk died in Las Vegas at age 79, leaving behind a pile of fun movies (including a self-aware cameo in the 1995 satire Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold.) But I can never think of Tommy Kirk without thinking of one shimmering moment in a 1964 teen comedy that turns out to be one of the most unintentionally poignant things that Tommy Kirk ever did. Trapped in another American-International B movie (originally titled "The Maid and the Martian" before being renamed "Pajama Party") Tommy found himself cast alien who didn't fit in with the other teenagers.

And so it was that Annette Funicello sang — sweetly and patiently — a poignantly honest duet with young Tommy Kirk.

Its title? "There has to be a reason why I feel this way."

Over.  End of Story.  Go home now.

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