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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Thomas Lee “Tommy” Kirk

I think of one of my favorite part of my Disney journey of discovery is having the Walt Disney Family so close. The Museum has regular monthly events, or as I call them sessions, where various Disney luminaries, legends and expects come and speak for about an hour, then answer some questions, and finally if time allows sign memorabilia, or books. Thanks to Ms. Donna for all her hard work creating an amazing visitor experience
The Museum is an incredible collection of Walt Disney artifacts currently arranged in 10 galleries that take you through Walt’s life during defined periods. No matter how many times I tour the galleries, I always discover something I hadn’t seen to before, and Gallery 10 is now, and probably always will be, the hardest gallery for me to transit. But that is not the subject of this blogisode, which, by the way, I checked and so much for copy writing.

This last weekend my oldest, who normally accompanies me on these excursions, and I had the opportunity to listen to Tommy Kirk talk for an hour about his years as a Disney movie talent. Tommy has starred in over 30 films in a career that spanned 6 decaded, and I believe more than half of them for Disney, including one that was the subject of this month’s movie at the WDFM Theater – The Swiss Family Robinson, hence the name of this session, “Inside the Tree House.” There is a great write-up of Tommy on Wikipedia that provides his complete filmography, if you are interested. However, who, over the age of, never mind, doesn’t remember with tearful eyes, the young boy with tears in his eyes forces to pull the trigger of the rifle that ended his cherished friend and companion – “Old Yeller”? There is a tear in my eye as I write this sentence.

As the session started, Donna, the Director of Visitor Experience introduced the afternoon’s moderator – Jeff Kurtti. Jeff is a Disney luminary in his own right. Author or contributor of several (an understatement) books on Disney, Renowned Disney historian, and as we were told, very involved with the creation of the Museum. He has this member’s eternal gratitude for his effort at the Walt Disney Family Museum.

Tommy is as personable today, as his characters he portrayed. After giving a few opening remarks about our guest, Jeff surprised us and turned the floor over momentarily to another well known guest and benefactor of the Museum – Ron Miller. For those not aware, Ron Miller is the husband of Walt’s daughter Diane, and a former Director, Producer, and Executive at the Walt Disney Company.

Ron told us how he came to be employed at Disney. In the 50’s, after servicing in the Army, Ron play a season as a tight end for the Los Angeles Rams, and anyone who has played football (high school running back here) will tell you, the tight end is one of the positions which takes the most punishment on the field. As Ron told us he was no exception, and got laid out on a couple of occasions. He explained that on play he was knocked unconscious in the 1st quarter and didn’t wake up until the 3rd. This happened to be a game that his father-in-law was in attendance. After the game Walt came to him and told him that he(Ron) was going to get himself killed if he continued to play, and he(Walt) did not want to be raising Ron’s children. Walt suggested that Ron come to work for him at the studio, and Ron agreed. Walt arranged for Ron to join the Director Guild, and Ron started as an assistant director. Now you may be wondering what all this has to do with Tommy Kirk? Well, Ron first job as an assistance director was to collect a young Tommy Kirk from the studio and escort him as the sole human actor for the day to a shooting location. They were filming “Old Yeller” and that was the first meeting between the two. They worked together many times after that and became close.

While the session was called “Inside the Tree House” we didn’t hear a lot about “Swiss Family Robinson.” Tommy did talk about not knowing who John Mills was and wonder why they did get a more famous actor. But, admitted afterward, he couldn’t imagine anyone else playing the father better than John. He also talked about being on location on an island in the West Indies for 7 months, and being terribly home-sick. One of the things Tommy really missed while on location was brownies. He spoke warming of his movie Mom in Swiss Family Robinson – Dorothy McGuire, who also played his Mother in “Old Yeller”, and you could truly hear the affection for her in voice. He said how he really liked her and felt she like him. Whereas, Jane Wyman, who played his Mother in “Bon Voyage”, he said, while she was nice and professional, he got the impression she didn’t like him all that much.

Tommy worked with Fred MacMurray (Disney 1st Legends inductee in 1987). We were told how Mr. MacMurray was always such a professional on the set, and how when off camera, he’d sit quietly off to the side, read his newspaper and drink his coffee, when he was needed on camera, he’s fold his paper, come onto the set and slip into character and perform his part. He told a funny story about one movie the two work on together. I don’t recall all the particulars, but they want someone on the set who would do Groucho Marx impressions, and that kind of stuck with Tommy. During one scene, the camera angles for the shot were changed, and Tommy, in his best Groucho voice, claimed jokingly that they changed the angle to shoot the back of his head to give the star more camera time. Tommy said that was the only time he ever saw Fred get really mad. Fred told him when he’d been doing this along as he had, he could worry about who got the most camera time. Tommy did say that after the incident, Fred didn’t appear to keep it with him or hold a grudge. They worked on several films after that one. Tommy also commented that Fred had great toupees. He and Jeff talked about the fact that Fred, Bing, and Frank all had great hair pieces. As the session went on, Tommy talk about acting with then Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, and how she got more fan mail than Marilyn Monroe. He talked about being in “The Monkey’s Uncle” and how it was not one of his favorite films, in fact he really hated it. He was also not fond of “Bon Voyage” either.

At the end of session we had an opportunity for few audience questions. One question from a younger member of the audience asked how Tommy liked working with the animals on “Swiss Family Robinson”? Tommy told us how he had to be careful around the ostrich and make sure that he stayed to the side or behind the animal because when they kick, and they can kick very hard, they do it to the front. The same young audience member followed up with a question asking if he got the play much with the baby elephant. Tommy said no, the baby elephant was pretty much Kevin (Moochie) Corcoran’s animal. The two most notable questions came at the end. A certain audience member from the top row of the theater ask Tommy if he’s reconsider his position on “The Monkey’s Uncle”? The audience member happened to be the movies producer and none other than Ron Miller, and received a resounding laugh throughout the audience. The final question asked a similar question for “Bon Voyage” from the associate producer, also Ron Miller and receiving a similar laugh from the audience.

After the session, Tommy, as is the case with most session guests, agreed to sit a sign autographs and memorabilia for audience members. As we waited in line, I notice a pin on the lady standing in front of me. It was a Club 33 pin, and I had to comment on it. She smiled so brightly at the recognition at I was sure she in got while actually dining at the Club. That’s pretty cool, and one of my dream goals for the future. As we continued to wait in line she noticed that my daughter had nothing to be signed and produces a “Swiss Family Robinson” postcard from her bag and handed to Sam. I am, now days not surprised, grateful that there are so many friendly Disney devotees. We have met many at the Museum, and continue to meet them at various Disney events. It is one of the reasons I looks forward to going to Museum as often as I can. If you ever have the opportunity, I highly recommend it.

Edited:  August 30, 2010

I had to come back and make a quick addition that I missed in my initial posting, because I thought it  was important tidbit and insight into Walt Disney the man.

Tommy told us of a very special event in his career with Disney.  One day he happened to be at a local establishment and ran into Walt Disney, who was having lunch that day with Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, two well known Hollywood columnists of the day.  Walt introduced young Tommy to his lunch guests as Tommy Kirk, his lucky charm.  Even to this day, you could hear the pride and joy in his voice, at hearing such praise from Walt Disney.

Your comments or questions are always welcome. If you have a correction or something you think I should look at in my research, please feel free to contact me at

1 comment:

  1. Dear Tommy,

    I know this is late in coming, but you've always been a favorite of mine. When I was a young girl I had a huge crush on you. Later, when the news came out that you were gay I still thought you were a person I'd want to meet. I'm so sorry that society was so cruel. Those days were so difficult for anyone who was not "squeaky clean". It must've taken great strength to survive what you went through. I have nothing but admiration for you. I do hope you're doing well now.

    Best Wishes,

    Lynn M Jenkinson