Old Yeller star Tommy Kirk dies at 79

Tommy Kirk dies at 79: Old Yeller and Swiss Family Robinson star found dead in his Las Vegas home

  • Old Yeller star Tommy Kirk has died at the age of 79
  • Tommy was found dead inside his Las Vegas home by his neighbor around 8 pm on Tuesday, September 28 
  • The actor got his big break with his role in the 1957 Disney film Old Yeller
  •  Tommy followed it up with roles in Swiss Family Robinson, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, Son of Flubber and The Shaggy Dog   

Tommy Kirk, who starred in the 1957 Disney film Old Yeller, has died at the age of 79.

The actor was found dead in his Las Vegas home on Tuesday, September 28 at 8 pm by his neighbor, according to TMZ. 

No foul play has been suspected.

RIP: Tommy Kirk, who starred in the 1957 Disney film Old Yeller, has died at the age of 79. Tommy pictured with co-star Dorothy McGuire in the 1957 film Old Yeller

His friend, fellow actor Paul Peterson, took to Facebook to announce the news.

Paul wrote: ‘My friend of many decades, Tommy Kirk, was found dead last night. You will surely recall his string of Disney movies: “Shaggy Dog. Ol’ Yeller,” etc. Tommy was intensely private. He lived alone in Las Vegas, close to his friend… and “Ol’ Yeller co-star, Bev Washburn and it was she who called me this morning.’ 

‘Tommy was gay and estranged from what remains of his blood-family. We in A Minor Consideration are Tommy’s family. Without apology. We will take care of this. Please know that Tommy Kirk loved you, his fans. You lifted him up when an industry let him down in 1965. He was not bitter. His church comforted him. May God have mercy on his soul. – Paul Peterson.’

While filming The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, Disney executives found out that Tommy, who was 21 at the time, was seeing a 15-year-old boy he met at the swimming pool; his mother told them and it led to him being let go from Disney, per The Hollywood Reporter.

Legend: The actor was found dead in his Las Vegas home on Tuesday, September 28 at 8 pm by his neighbor, according to TMZ . No foul play has been suspected; pictured at the 2009 Disney D23 Expo at Anaheim Convention Center

He did however end up coming back for the film’s sequel – The Monkey’s Uncle in 1965.

That same year Tommy was dropped from the 1965 films The Sons of Katie Elder and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini after he was arrested for possession of marijuana. 

In a 1993 article called Sex, Lies, and Disney Tape: Walt’s Fallen Star for Filmfax magazine, Tommy spoke to Kevin Minton about coming out as gay.

‘When I was 17 or 18 years old, I finally admitted to myself that and wasn’t going to change. I didn’t know what the consequences would be, but I had the definite feeling that it was going to wreck my Disney career and maybe my whole acting career,’ via THR. 

Adding: ‘Disney was a family film studio and I was supposed to be their young leading man. After they found out I was involved with someone, that was the end of Disney.  

He also said to Minton that he ‘almost died of a drug overdose a couple of times.’ 

Speaking out: That same year Tommy was dropped from the 1965 films The Sons of Katie Elder and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini after he was arrested for possession of marijuana; seen in 2009

Tommy was born on December 10, 1941 in Louisville, Kentucky as Thomas Harvey Kirk.

Tommy, who had three brothers, moved with his family to Downey, California as an infant. His dad, Louis, worked as a mechanic in the aircraft field and mom, Doris, was a stenographer. 

He discovered at the age of 13 while he starred in the Pasadena Playhouse production of Ah, Wilderness! alongside actor Will Rogers, Jr. He had originally just tagged along with his brother Joe to the audition for the role of Eugene O’Neill, with Tommy ending up getting cast while Joe did not.

Tommy had five lines in the play but it led to a talent agent to sign him.

After he was signed, Tommy had a role in TV Reader’s Digest, which aired on January 17, 1955, followed by roles in TV shows like Frontier, Letter To Loretta and more.

He also starred in the 1956 film The Peacemaker,  TV roles in Lux Video Theatre, The Loretta Young Show, Gunsmoke and over 30 episodes of Matinee Theater.

Tommy got a role on The Mickey Mouse Club, which occurred between 1956-1957. 

Tommy played Travis Coates in the Disney classic film Old Yeller, about a boy and his beloved dog.

The film was his big break, and the actor went on to star in a number of Disney films. 

In addition to the 1957 classic, Tommy also played leading roles in Swiss Family Robinson, The Shaggy Dog and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones.

In character: Tommy played Travis Coates in the Disney classic film Old Yeller, about a boy and his beloved dog

Starring role: In addition to the 1957 classic, Tommy also played leading roles in Swiss Family Robinson, The Shaggy Dog and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones; pictured  on Swiss Family Robinson (1960). He played Ernst

Tommy had roles in films like Pajama Party, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine and Village of the Giants following his departure from Disney.

He left the acting world in the 1970s and opened a carpet cleaning business, which he ran for twenty years.

Tommy was named a Disney Legend in 2006, and spoke out about how he had bumped into Walt Disney himself at a Beverly Hills hotel.

‘He put his arm arm around me and he said, “This is my good-luck piece here” to [gossip columnist] Heidi Hopper. I never forgot that. That’s the nicest-compliment he ever gave me.’ 

While he has starred in over 30 film features, Tommy had said of what he hopes his legacy is, according to D23.

He said: ‘I want to be remembered for my Disney work, like Swiss Family Robinson and Old Yeller.’ 

Rest in piece: He said: ‘I want to be remembered for my Disney work, like Swiss Family Robinson and Old Yeller;’ Tommy pictured with his Swiss Family Robinson co-stars: Janet Munro, John Mills, Dorothy Mcguire, Kevin Corcoran, James Macarthur. Tommy on the far right

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