In the 1960s, the room my brother and I shared was cluttered with the likeness of Tommy Kirk, on coloring books, comic books, Little Golden Books, games, and toys. A former Mousketeer, Kirk was packaged as “the all-American boy” and “the epitome of young masculinity” in such Disney products as The Hardy Boys (1956-57) with Tim Considine, as Old Yeller (1957) and Swiss Family Robinson (1960), with James MacArthur and Kevin Corcorran. Plus several movies with Fred MacMurray as his beset-upon dad or favorite professor. My first date was to see him in Village of the Giants in 1968.
But he entered his twenties, it became apparent that he lacked the tongue-lagging heterosexual horniness necessary for masculinity in the Cold War Era. Although his intense brown eyes and respectable physique were by no means repellant, he was bookish and shy, an “oddball” (that is, gay).
In The Monkey’s Uncle (1965), his last gasp for the Disney Studios, the 24-year old Kirk plays Merlin Jones, a “scrambled egghead” studying science at Midvale College, oblivious to the heterosexist world of girls and sports around him. To demonstrate that he is nevertheless straight, director Robert Stevenson cast beach movie babe Annette Funicello as his girlfriend.
Annette spends the opening credits singing, accompanied by the Beach Boys, a hard look of defiance on her face as she dares us to disbelieve that “I’m in love with the Monkey’s Uncle and I wish I was the monkeys aunt!” Otherwise we would never know: they behave precisely as best friends, not as persons in love.
Midvale College is oddly deficient in collegiate beefcake; standing in for football jocks are hefty, slack-jawed Norman (“Woo-Woo” Grabowski) and balding, befuddled Leon (Leon Tyler). One wonders why a college set omits any trace of hunky extras; perhaps it is for the same reason that Merlin’s best friend is a chimp: human men might bring homoerotic desire too close to the surface.
Merlin does bat his eyes flirtatiously at girls, but even that gesture seems transgressive, flamboyantly feminine. Instead, the various plot strands of the movie continuously return to the question of kinship: how does one form intimate, permanent associations in the absence of heterosexual desire?
Merlin finds two answers:
1. He adopts a chimpanzee. A judge rules that he cannot become the chimp’s father; he must settle for an avuncular relationship, becoming a literal monkey’s uncle.
2. He joins a fraternity. The "jock" Leon becomes his test case in a human-flight experiment and promptly crashes, forcing Merlin to grab him, cradle him in his arms, and whisper “Are you ok?”
At a pivotal moment, Leon begins to return his interest, expressing a shy, tentative, hand-on-shoulder affection: “All the brains I ever knew were snobs, but not you. You’re just like a regular stupid fellow. That’s why I like you.” He adds coyly “Let’s go back to the [fraternity] house,” rather an odd suggestion, since it’s the middle of the day. What precisely does he expect that he and Merlin will do there? But Merlin flashes a knowing smile, and we recall that this is the last of Leon’s film roles; though only about thirty years old, he will never work again. Did the adroitness of his hand-on-shoulder affection cause Disney to abandon him?
About halfway through the film, all of Merlin’s plans have failed, and dark-eyed from despair he wails to the chimp, “[Do] you know what it’s like when the whole world is against you? Everyone on campus hates me. I’m being expelled from Midvale. . .kicked out. . . disgraced. . . .” Years later, I learned why Tommy Kirk left Disney so abruptly: Walt discovered that he was gay and summarily fired him. Although he was asked to return to finish The Monkey's Uncle, he was being expelled, kicked out, disgraced, and most likely everyone at the studio did hate him (except for Annette Funicello, who continued to support him). That was the penalty in 1965 for taking the next step beyond fraternity, for falling in love (something similar apparently happened to Peter McEnery).
After some beach movies and teen horror like Village of the Giants (1965), Tommy was abandoned into a ghetto of drug abuse and late-1960s sleaze movies like Mars Needs Women and It's a Bikini World. Eventually he pulled himself together and started a carpet-cleaning business.