Being able to interview a cast member from a film that started production in 1937 when Walt Disney purchased the film rights to Felix Salten's novel Bambi, A Life in the Woods. It was originally slated to be the second Disney animation after Snow White but the animators discovered that the film was going to be challenging because they needed to animate a deer to talk so the production was put on hold. This was also during World War II and during that time some of the animators went off to fight in the war. Ultimately, Bambi wasn't released until August of 1942 as the 5th animated movie from Walt Disney Productions. We got to sit down with Donald “Donnie” Dunagan the voice of Young Bambi and Peter Behn the voice of Young Thumper to talk about their time of this lovable film.
Enter to win a copy of Bambi Signature Collection at the bottom of this post.
Let's jump right in with how Donnie Dunagan became a child actor. Donnie is a storyteller, I loved listening to him talk about his life. I say this because his answers were lengthy but well worth it.
Donnie Dunagan- “We were dirt poor. And I mean, certified dirt poor in the South. And my mother would take me down to the corner about two blocks away where a wonderful man danced on the corner on Saturday, okay, with a Victrola that you crank up and put on the sidewalk, okay. We literally knew he was the cousin of a famous dancer named Peg Leg Bates, true story.
And I’m standing there at 3 ½, four years old you know I’m standing behind a crowd. And it was the depression, no phones, no radios, no money, okay? People were there laughing about this wonderful man dancing on the corner for nickels and pennies. And I started imitating him. And I was barefoot. He had tap shoes. He’s cheating, right? And I’m barefoot. And I start dancing. Then they decided to put me in a talent contest. People went to talent contests in those days in local theaters because they were dirt poor and there was no entertainment, you know.
And they didn’t have a floor on who could apply for this, okay. The top floor was 14 so I’m four years old. And I won the darn thing which was a miracle. And I sang to a song I think called A-tisket A-taskit, with a paper bag as my hat and a stick from a tree as my cane. Won the darn thing. In the audience was a wonderful man who was there because his mother was ill. This is Memphis, Tennessee.
And he was a bona fide genuine talent scout in those days. This is was 1938. All the way out from Los Angeles because his mother was ill. About two weeks later, cut this real short. We’re in Los Angeles and I did seven movies, some of them as a costar on the marquee, if you can believe that, huh.
A little runt kids with the Mickey Mouse curly hair. The guy was straight as a string. They curled it twice a day. It’s a bummer, okay. True. I did a whole bunch of those films as a kid. Son of Frankenstein, Tower of London, some others. Then Mr. Disney called my mom on our kitchen phone. In Westwood, California where we were at the time and asked about coming up and being a facial model? In April or May according to the newspaper article, we have of 1940, facial model.
I’ll just keep this short. We can have some short fun. We had an agent. You’ve got to have an agent in the business in those days, right? This guy was born with a bad attitude and he cultivated it. And he was rude to my mother all the time. And I’m five years old. And he didn’t want us to do Bambi. He didn’t –, oh, you can’t do that, that’s an animated cartoon thing. Think about that one for a second, right? So I fired him.”
Q : You fired him at five?
DDI fired him at five years old, out of here. My mother was very nervous about it but it worked really good, right. So then we went to you know, we went to the studio. It took a long time to get there, no freeways, up Westwood up to all the construction at the new Disney studio. And they treated us just wonderful, had a great time. Some of the movies, seven movies before the age of 5 ½. Think about that for a second.”
Donnie Dunagan is a highly decorated Marine that didn't talk much about his life prior to Bambi. He says, “I was raised around some men who if you were brighter, that’s bad. If you had done things in your life, don’t boast, you know. If other people find out about it that’s fine but don’t walk around, look at me, look at my stuff, okay.”
Not even his wife knew about the fact that he was a child actor.
“She finally found all seven or eight movies, hundreds of fan letters in cardboard boxes, okay and came in the house.
“What’s this? (about wife) You know and that’s true. The next part I’m making up. That part is I tell people and because of that I ate peanut butter for a month.”
Can you imagine finding out your spouse was a child actor and they NEVER mentioned it to anyone?
Much like most Walt Disney Animations, the animator's like to use facial expressions from the voice actors. The same was done of Donnie Dunagan so I asked him.
Me- What was it like seeing your facial expressions on an animal? Because I know that they did some animation to try to make some of your facial expressions come through on Bambi.
Donnie- “Excellent question. Remember when the mother is shot, right? Thank goodness off-camera. I had the original copy of the book. [if] Mr. Disney had followed the book verbatim, you know page for page. If you had seen it on camera, it’d have been terrible. It’s already bad enough. We hear about it all the time, the mother, the mother’s been shot, the mother’s been shot. When that recording was required I did not do it as well as I should have.
(cheerfully) Mother, mother, mother. You know, I’m having the time of my life. You know, this cannot be a bad time. And my coach was a lady in the sound booth like Peter was discussing. And she said, no, do it again, do it again. Okay. Mother, mother. Like we're at a park. Hey mom, where’s my ball, you know? That’s not going to work, right. Well, I meet a very bright lady who said, your mother, she looked at me, I'll never forget this because I have a good memory. She said, your mother’s in trouble.
Now, she didn’t tell me this, this is fun, right. She said your mother’s in trouble. Donnie, maybe your mother’s in trouble. You need to find your mother. Call your mother, call your mother. That caught my attention pretty quick. You know I’m just a kid, right. (scared) Mother, mother, mother. Now, that took some doing with me. Peter was faster at this than I was. I took some coaching.”
Pete Behn's (the voice of Thumper) father was a script writer in the 20's and Peter explains to us…
Peter Behn- And then during that time or after a little later in the 30s, he knew Walt Disney. And he heard that a new movie was about to be done. And he brought me over for the voice auditions for the part of Bambi. And Donnie beat me out on that one. Because I had the wrong voice for that part. However, later Frank Thomas and … Ollie (Johnston) decided that my voice was right for the rabbit is the way they referred to it as I understand it initially. And never actually ever auditioned for Thumper so they just went from there and –.
Moderator- And you were five at the time?
Peter Behn – “I was four initially, yeah. And then the recordings took place intermittently over a two-year period and I was 5 when it all ended. “
Q : What was it like working with Disney himself? It must have been pretty humbling. Can you share?
Peter Behn- “Well, bear in mind, Disney was quite a –, by that time had really become quite a businessman and it wasn’t just Bambi that he was working on. I did meet him a couple of times but not on a regular basis. He wasn’t one dealing directly with me anyway. Maybe he was with Donnie probably needed a lot more supervision and …
Anyway, he was with me and showed me the little Disney zoo that they had. At one time they had deer and some rabbits and other creatures so the animators could actually see the anatomy of the animals and help them with their drawings. And so I do remember being out there at that time. And he was a very nice man, so.”
One of my favorite questions from the day.
Q- What do you envision and hope for the legacy of Bambi going forward? This is the 75th anniversary which is amazing to me. But going forward into the future, what do you see for Bambi? What do you hope it accomplishes in this world?
Peter Behn – Well, very frankly one of my strongest feelings about the movie is the amazing fact that back in the 30s, Walt Disney was so aware of his, far ahead of his time in the environmental concerns. I think the movie is truly a very strong statement in favor of protecting the environment and the concern that man was ruining it or even make it worse which unfortunately I personally believe.
It’s one of my strong beliefs that we have to do everything we can to keep it from getting worse. But it’s just, it’s a forward awareness and thinking that Walt obviously brought to the movie. He had to know what he was doing. I think it was very strong. And I think as time goes on perhaps that aspect of the movie will be –, will resonate and become even more important and more –.
The people will be more aware of that aspect of the movie. At least I hope so.
Donnie Dunagan – “If I live to be 1000 years old I couldn’t say it better than Peter did. The environmental profile, the forests, the reckless fire is spoken to by children in schools now. And I listen to them. And they pick up on that right away. Here’s an extension of Mr. Walt Disney’s Bambi, okay. I get one of these by children a month from all over the world. (he starts to tear up here)
And a couple I have, some they can’t spell correctly you know. One a month minimum, Christmas time a couple more. And at least 2 ½ to 3 handwritten letters a week from children all over the world. To Disney who happens to be this old beat up fullback in the middle of West Texas, all right? To Disney, to Disney, to Disney, thank you Disney, thank you Disney. If this doesn’t tell people that Bambi is forever, I’ll do push-ups in that parking lot for you.”
The perfect way to end such a great interview.
Enter to win Bambi Signature Collection on HD download!
Bambi Signature Collection is Available On Digital HD May 23 and Blu-ray™ June 6! When you purchase the Bluray copy of Bambi you get a beautiful print of one of the main scene animators, Tyrus Wong. You can also use your Disney Movie Rewards to get this great Bambi tank top that has a Disneygraph from Paul Felix! Check out that special offer here.