Interview: A Tribute to Tommy Kirk
A Life Lived:
I’ve reflected on my childhood love of nostalgic Disney a number of times throughout the pages of Ticklish Business. While it probably stemmed from a misspent youth wandering through Blockbuster Video to illicit late-night viewings of ‘Vault Disney’, it is a love that remained with me over all these years.
From The Absent-Minded Professor to The Shaggy Dog, heck, even in my Pajama Party entree to the ‘Beach Party’ franchise, Tommy Kirk was a name and face who was always there for me. He symbolized a particular nostalgia for a simpler time. As a youngster, Kirk was relatable. His characters were often smart and usually a little awkward. He was someone we kids who struggled socially could identify with. Heck, for me he was one of my earliest crushes… he graced many an elementary school binder for ten-year-old Kim.
However, it didn’t take long to discover the shadow hanging over his career. While his face symbolizes the pinnacle of child stardom (next to frequent co-star Annette Funicello), Kirk’s disappearance from the spotlight simultaneously shows the perils. For many, the question soon became, “Whatever happened to Tommy Kirk?”. And unless you’re a fan of exploitation cinema, it was a challenge to find an answer. A great deal of his later work has received the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment and by the middle of the 1970s, he’d largely stepped away from the industry.
The Ticklish Team had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Kirk (via phone) last year about his life, his career, and his many memories of working for Walt Disney when the studio was at its most vital.
Tommy Kirk passed away, not long after this interview, so we present this piece as a tribute. Child stardom in the best of situations is unforgiving and to hear a performer (who struggled mightily) come out on the other side is the truest tribute here. He saw so much, did so much, and was ultimately able to come out and finally live life on his own terms.
Check out the audio of the full interview above.
KP: You were born in Kentucky, but came to California at such a young age. What was your history with entertainment? What did you enjoy before you entered the industry?
Well, I think I had a pretty ordinary Southern California upbringing. My folks were… I guess you describe them as sort of “Middle American”. My mother was a secretary… in law offices. My father was a journeyman machinist. We grew up in Downey, which is a little suburb of L.A. (where I went to) junior high and grammar school. I had three brothers. It was a Southern California life.
KP: Your start in acting came as a bit of a surprise. It wasn’t supposed to happen. Was acting something you thought about and wanted to do as a child?
I did. I remember watching a talent show in seventh grade and (as I) I watched other people perform, I guess I wanted attention and remember having the feeling I wanted to do something. It was just sort of a vague feeling in a twelve-year-old, and that was about it.
My big brother Joe really had the (acting) bug. He went to an audition at Pasadena Playhouse in the summer of 1954… for a revival of Ah, Wilderness!, (the) Eugene O’Neill comedy. And he was going to try out for “Richard” and he invited me along. He said, “There’s a part for a younger brother (named) Tommy”. (It was) the summertime and I had nothing to do. So I went with him. He had no idea (his) part was already cast for Bobby Driscoll, but nobody tried out for my little part. (Tommy) has three lines in the whole play. And it didn’t pay, Pasadena Playhouse didn’t pay anything to people like me. But anyway, that’s how it started. I ended up getting a part in the play in the summer of 1954. My brother didn’t get it, but I did.
KP: So it was true that Bobby Driscoll was a member of that cast?
Yeah, he was. And I got to know him rather well which was fantastic considering Disney Studios was where I ended up. That was where he had worked. I remember him rather well.
KL: As someone who is very interested in Bobby Driscoll, what is something that sticks with you about him? I feel like a lot of people don’t know him as a person. They just know him as Peter Pan.
Right. I think he was best remembered for Treasure Island. He was a great in that and wonderful little kid actor. Very winsome, very likable, very charming. And he was in a movie called The Window… a very good movie. It’s a great noir.
I have never forgotten how athletic he was. He was an incredible physical specimen. He could do handstands and flips… I remember that. It was all very casual and he was young, he was only about 18. And he was extremely (kind). I (was) kind of a shy kid and he always went out of his way to be very nice to me. You know, you never forget that.
KP: As you were realizing acting was what you wanted to do, who were your idols? Who did you want to be?
Well, that’s a good question. I would have to say… and I’m not the only one… for me, the greatest actor who ever lived was (Marlon) Brando. Everybody thought so in my generation. I remember going to see On the Waterfront when I was doing the play… in Pasadena. There was a movie theater nearby, and I just knew he was the best actor that ever lived. He was kinda it for me.
I didn’t have any particular interest in westerns (and) I (didn’t) know what I wanted. But, I just knew I was an actor. I couldn’t see around corners (and) I didn’t know what was going to come tomorrow or the next day… I got an agent right away and started going on interviews right away…and two months after I left Pasadena, I was doing TV (like) Gunsmoke, Man Behind the Badge, The Loretta Young Show, and a number of other series. Suddenly I was a working actor and it happened very, very quickly.
KL: Did your parents make sure to balance your life as a child versus your acting life? How did they look at your career and how did they approach making sure you had a normal life?
They had lives of their own, but they both helped me. My dad took time off and… drove me to the studio. He’d be on the set with me. You had to have an adult with you when you’re a minor. And my mother did that and they both helped me. Their attitude was, “It’s entirely up to you if you want to do (this). You know, if you want to quit, you can quit. It’s your life”. They didn’t try to push me in any direction at all… and (they) couldn’t have been better to me or more helpful.
KP: Going back to your early years in television, your description reminded me of a quote from Johnny Crawford talking about that anthology run of television shows in the fifties as a ‘Masterclass in acting’. Did you find this to be true, having to tackle all these interesting roles so fast?
I wasn’t very analytical about anything since I was so young and didn’t have much theorizing. But, I had a feeling (for) good acting and bad acting. Bad acting… was hammy and phony… If you’re good, you’re believable. I had enough sense to think along those lines, but I never went to school in acting and never (took) a class. I did later… but I was not very diligent and busy running around doing the things that young people do.
KP: I have been trying to find your episode of Gunsmoke, but haven’t found it yet. Do you have any memories of working on the landmark western?
It was early… Yeah, 1955. I remember my greatest memory and I have to laugh, James Arness was like a big kid, you know? Oh, it was great. He was always kidding, always joking. And they (had to) yell at him, ” Settle down, Jim”. That’s the only way I can describe him. He was like a big kid. He made me laugh. I liked him a lot. He was a very likable person.
KP: Over the course of your career, you’ve worked with so many legends of the highest order. People like James Arness, Buster Keaton, heck, Fred MacMurray? Was there ever a time when you found yourself starstruck?
I was kind of starstruck by MacMurray. I thought he was so great right about the time we did (The) Shaggy Dog, and I did three pictures with him. The Caine Mutiny, I thought he was so good in that. He did a movie called Pushover with Kim Novak (where he) played a crooked cop… and I just thought he was such a fine actor, and I loved the guy. I was fascinated being around him (and) talked to him as much as I could. I think I probably drove him nuts, asking him questions. He was one of the few people that I really did look up to, but he was a hard person for me to get to know. He was very aloof, very private. I could only get so close.
KP: I was doing some reading on Kevin Corcoran. You two worked together so often and I saw a quote from him talking about how he “made your life difficult”. What was your relationship like working with him?
He was the only actor that I became really close friends with. We became best friends. I loved him… like a brother. He was very dear to me and I thought he was a great actor. He stole every picture he was in, you know, he was that good.
KP: I avoided Old Yeller for, you know, 35 years of life. I was terrified to watch it. I watched it last night and was bowled over. What are your memories of shooting it? I can only imagine the challenges of filming with those animals. That’s such an incredible performance from that dog.
I agree. I think it’s the best picture I was ever in… and the best acting I ever did. I’m hypercritical. I can’t stand to watch my stuff… But a lot of actors will say that you know. I’m very proud of Old Yeller. It was the best picture I was in and Swiss Family (Robinson) I’m proud of. It was an incredible experience and I took it very seriously.
I knew (I had to show) genuine emotion. In the end, if you can’t come up with tears for an animal that you love, you’re not an actor, you know. You can’t call yourself an actor if you can’t come up with a true, true feeling.
(Robert Stevenson)was the only director I ever worked (with) that I loved… He was a very soft-spoken, very patient Englishman. And yeah, I would go through fire for this guy. He gave me a lot of confidence and… I really did try to feel that part.
I think Dorothy McGuire is absolutely half the picture. She’s wonderful. She’s so beautiful, so incandescent and I think I just think she’s terrific. Fess Parker was good. Jeff York is priceless as Bud Searcy.
KP: I have to ask about the little scene you share with Chuck Connors. What was your experience working with him?
It was very interesting working with him. He was everything you would expect. His behavior was like the character he played on The Rifleman. You know, the proper man, wonderful manners and very good with kids.
KL: Do you have memories of Walt Disney himself? I know that he, especially with the children had that “Uncle Walt” persona, but he also expected good work and was definitely a shrewd businessman when it came to his films. Do you remember your first time encountering him?
Yes, very, very much. I was shooting ‘The Hardy Boys’ series, “The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure”. It was 1955, the first thing I ever did for the studio. (Walt) came on the set one day, (he) walked up and smiled and said, “Hi, I’m Walt Disney, I just wanted to say hello”. He put out his hand and he shook my hand. (He had) a very nice, friendly smile and (put me at) ease. And that’s the first time I met him and would continue to over the next eight years I was at Disney. I saw him all the time. He’d come and go. (He would) just kind of wander in and you’d never know. You’d be doing a scene and he’d be off-camera, talking to the director or talking to one of the technicians. He’d be there, then he wasn’t there. That’s my memory of him.
I saw him at ‘The Golden Oak Ranch’, he had a big party and everybody was there. He was there with his wife and daughter. I was never to his home. I ran into him (at the Beverly Hills Hotel) I went to a black-tie banquet for The Thalians. They still have it every year and… I was invited to that. I went down the hall and I saw Walt standing with Louella Parsons. He waved me over and he introduced me to her as… I’ll never forget this… ‘This is my lucky actor’.
KL: Stars had to be on their best behavior in the studio system, there was the morals clause. I’ve read that Disney, since everybody that he employed tended to be children incorporated a more stringent over-watch, making sure the boys and girls acted and dressed appropriately. Was that similar to your experience?
Oh yes, it was rather Victorian. Everybody knew that. You didn’t hear cursing on the set or high-jinks. I do remember that.
KL: Was that hard for you being a teenager and wanting to act like a teen, but also having a studio kind of tell you, “No, you can’t do that”? Was that difficult?
I understood how it was and you’re supposed to mind your manners and mind your ‘P’s and Q’s’. You watch your language and watch your behavior and all that. But I was a teenager and I did not live the life of a cloistered monk as I came into my maturity. I had money and I was in Hollywood (and) knew a lot of young people my age… in the business. I had a checkered past and in some ways an absolutely misspent youth in Hollywood, especially after I left Disney. And, you know, I can’t deny it.
KP: I was looking through a number of your news clips this morning, and there’s such an emphasis on dating, relationships and marriage in post-World War Two culture. In one newspaper column I saw from 1964, the very headline was “No Wife Yet for Tommy Kirk”. How were you able to keep a sense of self and maintain who you were and what you wanted while you were getting hit with all of this?
Well, a lot of the sixties, I’d rather forget. I just wish it could all be whited out or painted out… but you can’t do that. My personal life, I don’t know. I’m just a sinner like the rest of us sinners. Everybody is young once and everybody does crazy things once, right? I’ve done my share and brutally lamented over the follies of my misspent youth like a lot of men do. I’ve had a life like everybody else. And now here I am, 80 years old and enjoying my pension.
KL: Was the publicity machine weird? We talk about crazy headlines and you hear stories about, you know, studio contracted relationships. For you being a person in the industry, did the publicity ever get easier, or was it always an annoyance?
Like, really, I think it was part of the business, a very important part of the business. Publicity is what sells the picture. You know, you can’t control what people say… but on the other hand, you can control what you say. And I said a lot of stupid things I wish I hadn’t and done a lot of stupid things that I wish I hadn’t. Like I said, none of it can be taken back. That’s life. Everybody has a past. Everybody has a youth, a middle-aged and old age.
Publicity is publicity. Half of the budget of every movie is part of it. It’s the same in every industry… Public relations are half of everything.
Something once stuck in my mind. (I was) riding on the freeway in 1960 and I saw a Los Angeles Times newspaper and the headline read in great big letters, “Lucy-Desi Split”. The headline! The headline! That is how important celebrity is. This has always been an international business. You know, Gable was the biggest star in Britain and France. Everything touches everybody. I mean, look at Clint Eastwood with his spaghetti westerns. They went to Italy and made him an international star.
KP: I was watching Escapade in Florence last night. What locations do you remember going to? Was there a spot you shot in that just floored you?
Wow. Yeah. Well, I loved Italy, that’s one of my dearest memories. I loved being in Rome and the very dear memory of watching the sunrise. They get these blood-red skies... I was riding around on a Vespa with Annette going to Florence! Florence! It was a fantastic experience. I loved it. It was, you know, very dear to my heart.
KP: And I suppose we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention on any podcast talking about Disney… You worked extensively with Annette. What was your experience like working with her?
She was very cool. A really cool customer. She was very clear-headed. Cool. Professional. Not a hair out of place. (She was a) very disciplined person and she knew exactly what she was doing. She knew her lines perfectly. There was no fooling around. She wasn’t a prankster or cut-up. (She was) very conservative of her views on things… she never could drink or smoke. Her family was very, very conservative Catholics. I liked her. She wasn’t really easy to get to know. We never became close friends, but she was a very respectable person.
Annette knew what she could do and she didn’t try and do things she didn’t feel up to. She had… like me… a limited talent, but she made the most of it. She was incredibly smart. Walt Disney was a businessman and she was good business. Basically, everything I did was her vehicle. I just did as I was told.
KP: In 1965 you teamed with Johnny Crawford to work on Village of the Giants. What was that experience like for you?
I liked it. I liked Bert Gordon, the guy who directed it. It’s a silly, silly movie, but I’ve made some real dogs, real dreadful crap. I don’t think this was that. It was silly, but it at least made sense. Ron Howard was in it and that’s not a bad memory. It was pretty interesting. I did it because it was money, it was something to do (and) I wasn’t at Disney anymore. I didn’t have an agent (and) I was taking whatever I could. I did a bunch of stuff I should have turned down. Hindsight is 20/20, right?
KP: I was rewatching Village of the Giants not too long ago, and it’s third time I’ve seen it now. Once with the Mystery Science Theater backing and then twice on its own merit. It’s a fun little movie.
KP: And there’s your performance. I mean, Johnny’s great and Ron Howard is an absolute delight. And it’s just it’s one of those that you have to watch to just enjoy.
I think so. I mean, I made three things for American International (Pictures): Doctor Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine… and something with Basil Rathbone. One of them is cute… Pajama Party… but the other two are dreadful. I made another couple that I have nightmares thinking about, they were so stupid.
KP: I will say Pajama Party was my first beach party movie. It was my entree into the series and started my obsession with them.
It made a lot of money. (It was made) for spit… in about three weeks for nothing.
KP: I once read a quote referencing American International Picutres saying “We don’t care about quality, as long as it makes money”. Can you talk about being under the American International Umbrella?
They were known at that time (as coming) from hunger… (they were) real schlock masters. But the only people making worse movies than American International was Roger Corman. (It was the) most awful crap. They were schlock meisters of the fourth degree. That’s the way people talked about them and that’s what I think they were. I did it strictly for the money. I wish I hanged myself rather than do some of that crap.
The funny thing is, American international is now producing some serious and seriously good movies. Good budget, good writing. Good everything. They were a joke… they were a bad joke back then. They were the drive-in trade.
KL: How do you look at child stardom today? I know some childstars say they would never allow their relatives to enter the industry. How do you look at it considering how much has changed (and how much has remained the same) since you started?
Well, I’ll take a shot at that. That calls on everything. But in a nutshell, I would say the world is the same as it’s always been… (it’s full of) hucksters, grafters, crooks, thieves, people of integrity (and) people of ambition… The human race is a huge complex (mix) of all kinds of people in the world, and you meet them all. A man will encounter if he lives long enough, every specimen of humanity.
As an actor (you encounter) crooks (and) skullduggery… but it also has (many) hardworking, competent, decent (and) loyal (people)… you’re going to see everything good and bad in humanity. I have. But my life is like (that) of any other human being who has moved around in the world. You see what there is to see and everything going around. They (harmed) me… you have to be in a position to be prepared. Use your head. Don’t spend all (your) money getting loaded, partying, and making whoopie.
There are good people everywhere, (but) it’s a dangerous world now. You have to learn to protect yourself and in show business, you have to know what you can do and what you can’t. There are people who will get you killed. I was almost killed by stupid directors who didn’t care or weren’t watching. Show business is a dangerous profession.
The big money people are very few and far between (and there) is every kind of depravity everywhere… you have to be careful. You inform yourself. Listen to the advice of people you like and be careful. You can make millions, you can get lucky. I very much enjoyed it. I’m living comfortably now because of a pension.
For many people, it doesn’t matter the age, Tommy Kirk symbolizes childhood. The mere image of his face conjures a sweet and simple nostalgia. Like so many child stars to come before (and after!) him, life was not easy. However, unlike so many, he came out on the other side. It’s just a shame there weren’t more opportunities to pick his brain and share in the plethora of memories he had from his twenty years in the industry.
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