Actor Tommy Kirk was best known for the classic roles he played as a child, including those in Old Yeller and The Shaggy Dog. Many grew up watching him act beside dogs, and he was a beloved actor from many people’s childhoods.
But sadly, on September 28th, 2021, Kirk passed away at age 79. He left a lasting impact on his friends and fans, but as it turns out, his life wasn’t always as thrilling and magical as it might’ve seemed, especially when it came to acting.
Remembering Tommy Kirk
Kirk began his acting journey in the 1950s, where he starred in over 30 films. While he’s best known for playing Travis in Old Yeller, he was also known for The Shaggy Dog, Son of Flubber, and Swiss Family Robinson.
However, Kirk’s journey wasn’t easy. At around 17 years old, he realized he was gay, and he didn’t want to hide it. At the time, Disney wasn’t okay with that, so they stopped working with him. Sadly, he lost many acting roles because of it. Kirk’s family also distanced themselves from him, but he always had his co-stars to support him.
“My friend of many decades, Tommy Kirk, was found dead last night,” wrote fellow child actor Paul Petersen. “Tommy was intensely private. He lived alone in Las Vegas, close to his friend … and Old 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.”
Kirk quit acting altogether in the 1970s, and he later started his own carpet cleaning business. Yet, he still attended conventions and interviews related to his past acting career. After Kirk’s death, his neighbor found his body in his home, but the cause of death is unknown.
Nostalgic Impact of Old Yeller
Of all the characters Kirk played, Old Yeller was undoubtedly his most memorable and lasting Disney role. Dog lovers quickly fell in love with the relationship between the child and dog in the film but were heartbroken by the devastating ending.
“One of the reasons people remember Old Yeller is not just the fate of a beloved dog, but the shattering grief expressed by his owner, so beautifully played by Tommy. I think his talent and range as an actor were taken for granted somewhat. He was really very versatile,” said film historian Leonard Maltin.
In his tribute to Kirk, Petersen reminded fans that Kirk loved them very much. They lifted him up and supported him when the acting industry let him down. And through it all, Kirk stayed true to himself.
Rest in peace, Tommy Kirk. Your legacy won’t be forgotten.