Tommy Kirk, 'Old Yeller' and 'The Shaggy Dog' Actor, Dead at 79

Tommy Kirk
Photo by LMPC via Getty Images

Kirk's neighbor reportedly found him dead in his Las Vegas home Tuesday evening.

Tommy Kirk, star of Disney's Old Yeller and The Shaggy Dog has died. Kirk was found dead in his Las Vegas home Tuesday, according to multiple reports. He was 79.

Kirk’s longtime friend Paul Petersen II posted the news on Facebook, writing, "My friend of many decades, Tommy Kirk, was found dead last night. You will surely recall his string of Disney movies; Shaggy Dog. 'Ol' Yeller,' etc.Tommy was intensely private. He lived alone in Las Vegas, close to his friend…and 'Ol' 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. Please know that Tommy Kirk loved you, his fans. You lifted him up when an Industry let him down in 1965. He was not bitter. His church comforted him.  May God have mercy on his soul," Petersen added.

Kirk started acting when he was just a teenager, after moving from Kentucky to California with his family. Kirk first appeared on TV in episodes of Gunsmoke and Big Town in the 1950s. His big break came when he was cast as Joe Hardy on Disney's The Hardy Boys. With that series regular role kickstarting Kirk's Disney career, it wasn't long before he was cast as the lead in the timeless film Old Yeller and later in Swiss Family Robinson. Kirk went on to star in a string of Disney classics including The Shaggy DogThe Absent-Minded Professor and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones.

According to his obituary, Kirk shared in several interviews that he was fired by Disney at just 21 years old when they found out he was gay, during the filming of 1964's The Misadventures of Merlin Jones.

"When I was about 17 or 18 years old, I finally admitted to myself that [I was gay and] wasn’t going to change. 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," he said in a 1993 interview with Filmax Magazine. "Disney was a family film studio and I was supposed to be their young leading man. After they found out I was involved with someone, that was the end of Disney."

After being released from his contract with Disney, Kirk signed with AIP and starred in the beach party movies Pajama Party and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. Kirk's acting career tapered off after making the beach party films, and he would later admit that he struggled with a drug addiction.

In 2006, he was named a Disney legend and he shared his fondest memories at the film studio.

"I want to be remembered for my Disney work, like Swiss Family Robinson and Old Yeller," he said before recounting a memory with famed studio head, Walt Disney and then gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper. "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."