Actor Donnie Dunagan
Donnie Dunagan’s acting career ended almost 70 years ago, but that doesn’t mean you’re not familiar with his work. After making six studio films, most notably 1939’s “Son of Frankenstein,” young Dunagan decided he’d had enough of acting, and asked his mom if he could quit.
Then Walt Disney called.
Seems they were making a film called “Bambi,” about a young deer struggling to survive in the wilderness. Dunagan jumped at the chance and soon was in the studio, bringing a voice to one of the Mouse House’s most iconic characters.
As it turns out, voicing Bambi was the least interesting thing Dunagan did in his life. A decorated Marine Corps Major, Dunagan served in Korea and Vietnam (twice wounded in combat), was the youngest drill instructor in the history of the Marines, worked counter intelligence and earned a masters degree in engineering from the University of Vermont.
Dunagan spoke on voicing “Bambi,” keeping his big role a secret for decades and then, finally, having his cover blown.
Can you tell me about your memories of recording and bringing the words to Bambi’s mouth?
We did this thing 70 years ago! I did six films before “Bambi” with major co-star billing and two just preceeding “Bambi.” For a kid on the film studio lots, it was boring, boring, boring. But I did them, I hope well, and they did well at the box office. They weren’t Academy Award quality, but I didn’t want to continue doing films. I wanted to go to the circus, I wanted to go fishing … I heard kids talk about fishing. How do you do that? I did six films in less than two years, and all the practices kind of steals your childhood. So I asked my mom if we could back off of this and slow it down. She agreed, and six months passed, and the Disney people called us and I was thrilled to death. I could not wait to get there. On the first day, I met Mr. Disney.
He did not act pretentious. He wasn’t a showoff. He wasn’t an aristocrat. Everyone seemed to welcome him around, not like a lot of bosses. He made a sharp impression on me. But they hired me first as a facial model. I tell a joke to children that they glued antlers to me, I didn’t jump high enough, the antlers fell off, they fired me and hired me for the voice.
Did you have any idea that what you were doing at the time would become such an iconic character?
I did not have a clue. I didn’t know the storyline completely until I saw the movie for the first time and I was overwhelmed. As the years passed, World War II came around and changed this country like young people nowadays can’t imagine. I was living in a boarding house supporting myself at 13 and I was drafted and volunteered in the Marine Corps, traveled all over the world, worked in counterintelligence and hardly watched any movies at all. But I never talked about the film. From the age of 9 until about five years ago, I never talked about any of the films. My wife and I were married two or three years before she discovered I was in those films. Hiding that from her cost me peanut butter for about a week. <laughs> I’m still paying for that one. But I must share with you. I have enough stories in my life to fill up two or three books, I’m having the greatest time with this, with “Bambi,” than I did all the rest of my life.
You talked about how you didn’t tell anyone about it. Why did you keep it to yourself?
It wasn’t to conceal, a shame thing, or a proud thing. I just didn’t think about it. From 13 forward I was supporting myself, going to school. Think about that one for a second. I was busy. I wanted to be a medical doctor. The Korean War came, the Marines fell in love with me, I fell in love with it, I was very busy with my life. I was raised around some very strong men around World War II who said if you achieve great things in your life, don’t talk about them. Don’t self-promote. So I didn’t. And I hope Disney doesn’t get mad at me, but I didn’t think about it all through those years of the Vietnam War period until 1975, when I heard Disney was putting it out in reel-to-reel cassettes, and I started thinking “Uh-oh, if they put credits out on this thing and play this in a big theater where I’m a commander now, and some young corporal or lieutenant and writes to their parents, ‘Dear Mom and Dad, my commander is Bambi,’ even though Bambi is a courageous character, my thought was that I could be the best commanding officer in the world, but if this gets out, I’m history. So I pushed my chicken button, and didn’t say anything.
So did anyone ever find out?
Well, my major general, a guy I’d known for 20 years, asked me to do an audit of the PX (Post Exchange). I was really busy, working long days with a lot of responsibilities, and I told him I just didn’t have the time to do it. I told him, “I’ve never told you no to anything in 20 years, but I’m telling you I just can’t do it.” Well, I noticed there was a file sitting on his desk marked “Secret,” and I didn’t think much of it, but then looked at it again and it had my name on it, and my major general looked at me, patted that folder and said, “I’m sure you can handle this, isn’t that right, Major Bambi?” I just looked at him and said “Yes, sir,” and left his office.
Now that this stuff is getting out, have you heard from any of your old acquaintances and friends? What has their reaction been?
Only five years ago it was when the Disney people realized I was still alive and kicking. After that exposure, if you can imagine young sergeant majors and first sergeants and majors, all with gray hair, people who have spent time in the jungle with me, really hardcore, those people calling me, writing me, people who, whether I was senior or junior to them at the time, had never sworn to me before. For instance, Sgt. Major Sam Pierce, saying, “You blanket-blank-blank, sir! Why didn’t you tell us you were Bambi?” I told him the same thing I told you: I could have handled the “Son of Frankenstein” thing. I probably was a Frankenstein. But I got beat up, I hope, with affection, and now it’s kind of tapered off some.
And your wife, too. I can’t imagine that. “Hey Honey, you know that iconic, revered Disney character? That’s me.”
Yes, she was rummaging around in old Marine foot lockers, and she found that old stuff, and she’s shaking her fist at me in this room right now. I was going to throw some of that stuff out because it was taking up too much space, and I thought she was going to kill me! I must share this with you. No one would have approached this old fullback about medals or counterintelligence work, on lectures and physics, but when children, or 88-year-olds, realize I had a small part in even touching Bambi, their faces light up.