The Heartbreaking Death Of Old Yeller Actor Tommy Kirk

Actor Tommy Kirk, known for his roles in Disney classics such as "Old Yeller, "The Shaggy Dog," and "Son of Flubber," passed away in his home Tuesday, September 28, 2021, according to Variety. No cause of death was reported for the 79-year-old, whose death was announced on Facebook by his longtime friend, actor Paul Peterson II. 

Kirk, who began his acting career with small roles in television shows such as "Gunsmoke," first gained notoriety by playing Joe Hardy in "The Hardy Boys: The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure" in 1956 (IMDb). The following year, he was cast in Disney's "Old Yeller," the tear-jerking story about a young boy and his dog. The movie was so successful, Kirk became a staple in Disney films in the late 1950s and early '60s, including "Swiss Family Robinson" and "The Absent-Minded Professor." However, his Disney career came to an end when studio executives discovered he was gay. 

Kirk publicly came out in 1973

Tommy Kirk's last roles for Disney were in the movies "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones" and its sequel "The Monkey's Uncle," but he continued acting, starring in American International Pictures' productions such as "Pajama Party," opposite Annette Funicello. Following an arrest on a marijuana charge in 1964, he was replaced on several projects for that studio as well. In 1973, Kirk announced to the public he was gay and retiring from acting, admitting he'd struggled with drug addiction. He managed a carpet and upholstery cleaning company for many years afterward, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

According to Variety, when Kirk received the Disney Legends award in 2006, he expressed gratitude and pride in his Disney legacy and recalled once seeing Walt Disney at a Beverly Hills hotel. "He was with Hedda Hopper, the legendary columnist," Kirk said. "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."