Tommy Kirk, who starred as Travis Coates in the heartwrenching 1957 film Old Yeller has passed away at the age of 79. Kirk, who lived alone in Las Vegas, was found dead on Tuesday (Sept. 28). Actor Paul Peterson made the announcement on Facebook. Kirk was 79 years old.
Kirk, who also starred in classic Disney films such as The Shaggy Dog, Swiss Family Robinson and Son of Flubber, was born in 1941 in Louisville, Kentucky. His family moved to California when he was still an infant. In 1954, he landed a part in Ah, Wilderness opposite Will Rogers Jr. and Bobby Driscoll after tagging along to the audition with his older brother Joe, who did not land a part in the film.
Kirk would go on to star in The Peacemaker and appear in several television series, including Gunsmoke.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, while filming The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, Kirk began seeing a 15-year-old boy whom he met at a swimming pool. Disney did not renew his contract, though he did return for the film's sequel, The Monkey's Uncle.
"When I was about 17 or 18 years old, I finally admitted to myself that [I was gay and] wasn't going to change," Kirk told Filmfax magazine in 1993 (quote via The Hollywood Reporter). "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."
After coming out as gay in 1973, Kirk decided to end his acting career. Following a struggle with addiction, Kirk got clean and started a carpet and upholstery cleaning company in the San Fernando Valley.
When accepting the Disney Legends award in 2006, Kirk said he wants to remembered for his Disney roles.
"I want to be remembered for my Disney work, like 'Swiss Family Robinson' and 'Old Yeller.'"
The former child star also reflected on an encounter with Walt Disney himself.
"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."