Kirk was cast as a clean-cut teenager in The Hardy Boys serial feature which was aired in the Mickey Mouse Club television series in 1956 and 1957. He played Joe Hardy opposite Tim Considine as older brother Frank Hardy in The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure (September 21, 1956 - February 1, 1957), based on the book The Tower Treasure.
Following this, Disney used Kirk and Judy Harriet to cover the 1956 Democratic and Republican conventions for the Mickey Mouse show. Around this time he announced he would appear as Young Davy Crockett, but this does not seem to have eventuated.
Kirk's career received its biggest break yet when Disney cast him as Travis Coates in Old Yeller (1957), an adventure story about a boy and his heroic dog. He had the lead role in the film, which was enormously successful, and he became Disney's first choice whenever they needed someone to play an all-American teenager. Kevin Corcoran played his younger brother and they would often be teamed. Both of them were announced in the cast of Rainbow Road to Oz, based on the stories of L. Frank Baum, but this film never resulted.
Kirk appeared in another Hardy brothers installment, the original story The Mystery of Ghost Farm (September 13 - December 20, 1957). He then starred in The Shaggy Dog (1959), a comedy about a boy inventor, Wilby Daniels, who is repeatedly transformed into an Old English Sheepdog under the influence of a magic ring. This teamed him with Corcoran and two other Disney stars with whom he would regularly work, Fred MacMurray and Annette Funicello. He went over to Universal-International to do some voice work for the animated film, The Snow Queen (1959), originally in Russian but adapted for US release.
Kirk says at this stage Disney told him they did not have any projects for him and he was being dropped. "I was thin and gangly and looked a mess... I thought the whole world had fallen to pieces," he said. However, the studio soon contacted him offering him another long-term contract and a role as Ernst Robinson in another adventure film, Swiss Family Robinson (1960). This was another box office hit, as were three comedies where he supported MacMurray: The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), Bon Voyage! (1962), and Son of Flubber (1963). He also played Grumio in the fairy tale fantasy Babes in Toyland, had a small role in Moon Pilot (1962) and teamed with Funicello for two stories shot overseas, The Horsemasters (1961) and Escapade in Florence (1962). Newspaper columns occasionally linked his and Funicello's names romantically.
MacMurray once reportedly gave Kirk "the biggest dressing-down of my life" during the filming of Bon Voyage!, one that he says he deserved. But he maintained good relationships with his fellow actors.
"Tommy played my brother in a lot of films and put up with a lot of things that I did to him over the years," Corcoran says in a commentary on the DVD release of Old Yeller. "He must be a great person not to hate me." Considine calls him "a monster talent."
Kirk was given the lead in Savage Sam (1963), a sequel to Old Yeller which did not do as well at the box office. However, when he played "scrambled egghead" student inventor Merlin Jones in The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964), it resulted in one of the biggest hits of the year.
Despite his success, Disney chose not to renew Kirk's contract upon discovering he had been having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old boy. Walt Disney himself fired him after receiving a complaint from his mother. Yet in a bow to audience wishes, the studio rehired him for the Merlin Jones sequel, The Monkey's Uncle.
Kirk describes the situation himself: "Even more than MGM, Disney was the most conservative studio in town...the studio executives were beginning to suspect my homosexuality. Certain people were growing less and less friendly. In 1963, Disney let me go. But Walt asked me to return for the final Merlin Jones movie, 'The Monkey's Uncle,' because the Jones films had been moneymakers for the studio."
Immediately after Kirk's departure from Disney he kept busy appearing in several of the 1960s beach party films and teen movie films, notably in American International Pictures' Pajama Party (taking Frankie Avalon's usual lead role opposite Funicello while he only appears in cameo role), The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (with Deborah Walley), and later in the independent It's a Bikini World (paired again with Walley).
Kirk was inducted as a Disney Legend on October 9, 2006, alongside his old co-stars Considine and Corcoran. His other repeat co-stars, Funicello and MacMurray, had already been inducted (in 1992 and 1987, respectively). Also in 2006, the first of his Hardy Boys serials was issued on DVD in the fifth "wave" of the Walt Disney Treasures series.
- Tommy Kirk at the Internet Movie Database
- Salon interview with the author of Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company From the Inside Out — mentions Kirk
- Disney Legends profile
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