Tommy Kirk was a juvenile hero as well as the ideal mischief-maker in many Walt Disney film and television projects, but was also undoubtedly the finest child actor to emerge from Disney. “I always had the greatest respect for him as an actor,” says Tom’s “Hardy Boys” brother Tim Considine. “I always thought he was a monster talent.”
Thomas Lee Kirk was born on December 10, 1941 in Louisville, Kentucky and raised in Los Angeles. He was just 13 years old when discovered in Will Rogers, Jr.’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! at the Pasadena Playhouse. The all-American boy was brought to the attention of Walt Disney, who cast the teenager as half of “The Hardy Boys” in the popular serial seen on the Mickey Mouse Club.
Tommy appeared in more television programs, including Frontier, Gunsmoke, and The Loretta Young Show, before returning to Disney to film a serial sequel to the first “Hardy Boys” adventure. Larger, varied, and more significant Disney roles followed, among them a brilliant performance as Arliss Coates in Old Yeller, a comic turn in The Shaggy Dog, romance and adventure in Swiss Family Robinson, more comedy in The Absent-Minded Professor, and musical comedy in Babes in Toyland. He guest-starred in Moon Pilot and the sequels Son of Flubber and Savage Sam, and the telefilms The Horsemasters and Escapade in Florence.
Personal problems caused Tom some difficulties during the early 1960s.
On the set of Disney’s Bon Voyage (1962), star Fred MacMurray gave Tom “the biggest dressing-down of my life” for his behavior, and Tom later confessed that he fully deserved the scolding.
Tom’s last two films for the Studio featured him as the teenage genius, Merlin Jones, in The Misadventures of Merlin Jones and The Monkey’s Uncle.
Tom experienced many of the same troubles other former child and teen stars did when they matured, and he was left to take less and less challenging roles in 1960s “Beach Party” films and teen movies such as Pajama Party, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, and Village of the Giants.
But, fortunately, Tommy Kirk discovered that there was life after movies: “Finally, I said to hell with the whole thing, to hell with show business. I’m gonna make a new life for myself, and I got off drugs, completely kicked all that stuff. I went out and started my own business. I’ve done it for years and I live well. I have a nice business, a nice pension, and friends.” Though his filmmaking days are behind him, Tom has continued to act occasionally, and has more than 30 feature films roles to his credit. And, most importantly, he has made peace with his past.
“I want to be remembered for my Disney work, like Swiss Family Robinson and Old Yeller,” Tom recently said. He fondly remembers Walt Disney, and recalls once bumping into him at a Beverly Hills hotel. “He was with Hedda Hopper, the legendary columnist. He put his arm around me, and he said, ‘This is my good-luck piece here,’ to Hedda Hopper. I never forgot that. That’s the nicest compliment he ever gave me.”