Tommy Cole was born in December of 1941 in Burbank, California. His dad was an editor at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner newspaper, and his mom worked part-time as a welfare guardian for minor children at movie studios (something she got into after Tommy went into show business). Tommy has one older brother named John Cole.
Tommy showed an interest in performing at an early age, much to his family’s disapproval. They soon got on board with it, though, when it became clear that young Tommy was committed to this craft. Tommy began performing in earnest as a young teenager, playing the accordion in a western swing band with three other kids. Their band played in amateur contests and at small clubs, even managing to land a performance on a mid-1950s TV show called Where’s Raymond?, starring Ray Bolger. The band auditioned together for The Mickey Mouse Club at the Disney Studio in the spring of 1955. Tommy was the only one from the band who was selected to be on the show.
When Tommy first joined the show, in its premiere season, he was a singer and a musician. Dancing was the area of performing where he was the weakest and was one of only two non-dancers to be chosen to stay on the show after the cut of the first season. Tommy was an excellent singer and was the show’s featured male singer for all three of the show’s original seasons. While he was initially placed on the second-string Blue Team when he joined the show, he was promoted to the first-string Red Team by halfway through the first season and appeared in the show’s opening Roll Call scene thereafter.
An important factor in Tommy’s promotion to the Red Team was his singing ability. He was the only male cast member who could match Darlene Gillespie in singing (she was the most popular female cast member in the first season, before being eclipsed by Annette Funicello). While Tommy and Darlene were initially rivals on the show and off-screen, they eventually became used to each other, developed a friendship, and even made a couple of song recordings together. The studio pushed them to be a romantic couple with each other, and they appeared as if they were during public appearances for a while, thanks to the studio portraying that way. They were, though, only ever just friends. Tommy did take singing lessons from Darlene’s voice teacher, Glen Raikes.
After the first season, a new director, Sid Miller, was brought onto the show. He made the ten kids who were kept after the first season do new solo auditions for him in January of 1956. Because Tommy’s dance skills were still his weak point in performing, he took two months of dancing lessons with Burch Mann. The new dancing skills paid off at his re-audition, and he was offered a new contract for the show at his first season pay. This was a common tactic the studio used to avoid having to give cast members raises. Tommy was aware of this, even at his young age, and knew it was unfair, which pushed him toward a labor union mindset when he was older.
Tommy truly shone in the show’s second season. The Roll Call, of which he was a part, now featured singing and acting in addition to dancing. The studio made much ado of Tommy’s novice dancer status in their publicity, and the official magazine of the show did a feature on him learning dancing steps from some of the show’s girls. In the third season of the show, Tommy was one of only three boys who were in both the opening and closing segments of the show. In addition, he was the host for some of the newsreel specials, had a bit part in the Annette serial special, and was a cast member in the Disneyland 4th Anniversary episode.
Tommy was with the show for all three of its original seasons. After the show ended, he went to Hollywood Professional School and went on a couple of live performance tours to Australia with other Mouseketeers in 195 and 1960. After this, Tommy based his career on singing live at teenage clubs and public events, and as an opening act for other performers. He also attended Pasadena City College, did a stint in the Air Force, and did a few guest star roles on some TV shows.
By the time 1964 rolled around, Tommy knew that his days of performing were probably limited, based on his child star status. The British rock invasion of the early 1960s that put smooth balladeer singers like him out of business also played a role in this realization. But he wanted to stay in show business in some way. Thus, Tommy decided to focus on a career behind the TV camera. He became an apprentice make-up artist after becoming friends with the make-up artist on the TV show My Three Sons when he made a few guest appearances on that show. That make-up artist did some initial instruction in the craft with him, then Tommy went to work on his own, first at ABC, then at NBC, then as a freelancer, as he became more skilled at the craft.
In 1975 and 1977, Tommy was nominated for Emmy awards in makeup design and finally won the Emmy in this category in 1979. Tommy is the only Mouseketeer to win a prominent show business award. After his win, he was nominated for the makeup Emmy several more times, most recently in 2000.
As for his personal life, Tommy met his future wife, Aileen, while he was still performing, on a USO tour of Korea. Aileen was a dancer on the tour, which was headlined by Johnny Mathis. They married once they returned to the states, and have two children together, a daughter and a son. Tommy continues to work in makeup, is active in his union, and typically serves as a spokesperson or coordinator for the remaining Mouseketeers, with who he is on good terms, as they all like and trust him.