Tommy Kirk, the Disney star who gained fame in the classic movie Old Yeller, has died. He was 79.
Kirk passed away peacefully at home in Las Vegas, Nevada, Old Yeller co-star Beverly Washburn told Fox News.
“He was so loved,” Washburn told Fox in a statement. “Anybody who has ever met Tommy can attest to the fact that he was so fan-friendly.”
Old Yeller actor dies
A friend of Kirk’s, Paul Petersen, also shared a statement on the tragic news. “Please know that Tommy Kirk loved you, his fans,” Petersen wrote on Facebook. “You lifted him up when an Industry let him down in 1965.”
According to Variety, Kirk was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1941 and grew up in Los Angeles, where his talent was discovered while acting in the Eugene O’Neill play “Ah, Wilderness!” He started appearing in TV shows, most notably a Hardy Boys serial, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
But his most memorable role is that of Travis Coates in the 1957 tearjerker Old Yeller, which tells the story of a boy and his heroic dog.
Kirk would become Disney’s all-American teenager, and he appeared in several more successful and memorable Disney movies, such as 1959’s The Shaggy Dog and 1960’s Swiss Family Robinson, Fox said.
A life of fame, obscurity, and tragedy
Kirk, who was gay, entered a period of decline from which he never recovered when Disney reportedly let him go upon discovering the then-21-year-old was seeing a 15-year-old boy who he met at a swimming pool.
The incident was not made public, and Kirk continued to find work elsewhere, but his career suffered and he gradually lapsed into obscurity. A drug habit also took a toll: he lost roles after getting charged with marijuana possession.
Kirk eventually quit acting and started a carpet-cleaning business. He took responsibility for the collapse of his acting career, saying he understood why studios would not want to work with him.
When Kirk was named a Disney Legend in 2006, Kirk said that he wanted to be remembered for his work in Disney movies like Old Yeller and recalled a poignant meeting with Walt Disney at the peak of his success.
“He put his arm around me and he said, ‘This is my good-luck piece here,’ to Hedda Hopper. I never forgot that,” Kirk said, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “That’s the nicest compliment he ever gave me.”