‘Old Yeller’ child actor Tommy Kirk dead at 79

LAS VEGAS — Tommy Kirk, who starred in “Old Yeller” and other Disney films such as “The Shaggy Dog” and “Son of Flubber,” was found dead in his Las Vegas home. He was 79.

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Paul Peterson II, Kirk’s longtime friend, posted the news of Kirk’s death on Facebook, writing, “Please know that Tommy Kirk loved you, his fans.”

Kirk, who starred as Travis Coates in “Old Yeller,” in 1957, said his career ended, after Disney studio officials learned he was gay, Variety reported.

Kirk got his start on television in 1956-57 as Joe Hardy in a pair of Hardy Boys serials, “The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure” and “The Mystery of the Ghost Farm,” offshoots of “The Mickey Mouse Club,” according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Kirk appeared in four movies alongside Fred MacMurray, beginning with “The Shaggy Dog” in 1959. Kirk turned into a sheepdog named Chiffonn in the film, the website reported.

After portraying Biff Hawk, the son of MacMurray’s chemistry professor, in 1961′s “The Absent-Minded Professor” and its 1963 sequelSon of Flubber,” Kirk had an unexpected hit with “The Misadventures of Merlin Jones” in 1964, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

He also appeared in 1960′s “Swiss Family Robinson.”

During the production of “Merlin Jones,” Kirk, then 21, said he began seeing a 15-year-old boy, Variety reported. Upon finding out Kirk was gay, Disney chose not to renew his contract, according to the website.

Kirk moved to American International Pictures and starred opposite former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello in “Pajama Party,” according to Variety.

In 1964, Kirk was arrested on a marijuana charge. He publicly came out as gay in 1973, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

“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 Kevin Minton in an interview for a 1993 article titled “Sex, Lies, and Disney Tape: Walt’s Fallen Star” for Filmfax magazine. “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.”

Kirk was born in Louisville, Kentucky on Dec. 10, 1941, and grew up in Los Angeles County, according to Variety. He began acting as a teenager, and appeared in a play at the Pasadena Playhouse, the website reported. He made his screen debut in “The Last of the Old Time Shooting Sheriffs,” a 1955 episode of “TV Reader’s Digest,” according to Variety.

“Tommy was gay and estranged from what remains of his blood-family,” Peterson wrote on Facebook. “We in A Minor Consideration (a nonprofit) are Tommy’s family. Without apology.

“We will take care of this.”