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Tommy Kirk, whose prolific work as a child actor included classic films such as Old howler, the shaggy dog and Swiss family Robinson, died at the age of 79. Kirk’s death was announced by his friend and colleague Mickey Mouse Club alum Paul Petersen, who said the actor was found dead in his Las Vegas home.
Generations of children and more than a few adults mourned with Kirk when his character Travis Coates tearfully pulled the trigger to end the life of his beloved dog in Old town crier in 1957.
The audience also marveled at Kirk’s predicament in The shaggy dog, when he continued to transform between a teenager and a dog. And in 1964 he portrayed a gifted student with a knack for wacky mental experiments in The Misadventures of Merlin Jones.
Kirk’s meteoric career took off in the 1950s, when his irrepressible smile and fresh appeal landed him a film deal with Walt Disney and roles such as Joe Hardy in The sturdy boys Mystery TV series. But Kirk was abruptly abandoned by Disney in the mid-1960s; he later said the studio executives became aware of his homosexuality.
“Tommy was gay and estranged from what’s left of his family by blood,” Petersen said when announcing Kirk’s death on the Facebook page of child actor advocacy group A Minor Consideration.
“Please know that Tommy Kirk loved you, his fans,” said Petersen. “You raised him when an industry let him down in 1965. He wasn’t bitter. His church comforted him.”
Kirk has starred alongside Annette Funicello, Fred MacMurray and other stars of the day in films such as The absent professor and Girls in toy land. But his career collapsed after leaving the studio.
In a widely cited interview in 1993 with Filmfax magazine, Kirk described his teenage years – when he was the young family star of Disney who also accepted his sexuality in a closed environment – as “hopelessly unhappy”.
“When I was about 17 or 18, I finally admitted to myself that I wasn’t going to change,” Kirk said in this interview, according to the Stonewall Society website. “I didn’t know what the consequences would be, but I had a sure feeling it was going to ruin my Disney career and maybe my entire acting career. Eventually I got involved with someone and I was dismissed. “
Kirk said he later struggled with addiction, leaving him financially broken. But he changed his life after essentially quitting acting, and for years he ran a carpet and upholstery cleaning business.
Kirk stayed close to his Old town crier co-star Bev Washburn, who also lives in Las Vegas. Petersen says it was Washburn who called him to tell him about Kirk’s death.