You’d think it’d be a great party conversation starter. “By the way,” he would casually mention. “Ever seen Bambi? Of course you’ve seen Bambi. Everyone has seen Bambi. Well, I played him when I was 4.” Maybe throw in a “Biiiiiird“ for a good measure.
It’s fun-fact liable to blow minds. But throughout most of his lifetime, Donnie Dunagan, now 82, rarely mentioned his credential as the voice of the young deer in Disney’s 1942 animated classic. Neither did Peter Behn, also 82, who was also a 4-year-old whippersnapper when he dispensed those oft-quoted words to the wise as the young rabbit Thumper.
They didn’t even share this intel with some of the people closest to them. “I never really spoke about it to others,” Behn revealed to Yahoo Movies at a press event for the film’s 75th anniversary and release of the new Walt Disney Signature Collection DVD/Blu-ray. “When I got married for the second time, it was about a year so after that my wife finally found out.”
Explained Dunagan, a decorated veteran who served in the U.S. military for 25 years: “We didn’t talk about it. I certainly never talked about it in the Marine Corps.”
It’s more than their Disney connection that binds Dunagan and Behn. Both were showbiz tykes who left Tinseltown shortly after the release of Bambi. Both later enlisted to serve their country. And both ultimately lead successful (if “normal”) lives as in the private business sector.
At 3, Dunagan won a local talent show in Memphis that led his family to Hollywood. The curly-haired blond worked at a Shirley Temple-esque pace, making seven films (including Son of Frankenstein and Tower of London) between 1938 and 1941. He was initially hired as the model for Disney animators to capture the eponymous fawn’s facial expressions. “So the animators at Disney would have me sit on a stool, look left, look right, look afraid, and I did, and they would draw,” he said. Eventually, Walt Disney asked Dunagan’s mother if he’d also lend his voice to the lead character of the studio’s fifth animated feature, following Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Dumbo. (Watch above for exclusive archival footage of the Disney animators approach to drawing realistic animals for Bambi.)
Peter Behn’s father was screenwriter Henry Behn (Howard Hughes’s Hell’s Angels), who heard Disney was looking for young children to record the voices for Bambi, at the time a rarity in Hollywood. The young Behn auditioned to play Bambi, the deer whose mother suffers a tragic fate. But instead the studio asked the child to play Thumper, the hare who doles out such precious wisdom as “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” (which has since come to be known as “The Thumperian Principle”).
Their interactions with the legendary studio head were limited but impressionable. Behn remembers Disney taking him to the zoo he’d set up on the Disney lot so the animators could study the movements of young animals. Dunagan said he’d become accustomed to being around Hollywood bigwigs from his early run in films, but while most execs ruled by fear and kept a distance from their employees, “Mr. Disney was the opposite of that…. He was a working leader. He was all over the place, in the hallways, in the parking lot, everywhere.”
The kids did not stay in the pictures, though. Behn’s family left Los Angeles in the 1930s as screenwriters began getting blacklisted for Communist leanings (“I don’t know a great deal about it, but I know it was an issue and my father didn’t want to be involved with that anymore,” he said). They relocated to the southwest, where his father became a creative writing professor at the University of Arizona, before later moving to Connecticut. Behn attended prep school and then volunteered for the U.S. Army, where he spent two years working on teletype interception and Morse code. After serving, he became a successful real estate broker in Vermont and later moved to Park City, Utah, where he has since retired.
Deaths in the family landed Dunagan in an orphanage in the years after Bambi, and he lived alone by the age of 14. He learned how to box and play football, and landed a football scholarship to University of Alabama. During the Korean War Draft in the early 1950s, he volunteered for the Marines after a recruiter told him, “Son, the Marine Corps has a football team, and you get paid!” Dunagan became the youngest assistant drill instructor in the Corps’ history, and was wounded twice leading patrol units in Vietnam. He later held management positions and companies like New York Life and Gerstenhaber, and now is “as about as retired as a water buffalo” in central Texas.
It wasn’t until Disney reps contacted Dunagan and Behn (“and found out we were still alive,” Dunagan cracked) in the late 2000s to make marketing appearances for home entertainment releases that they began openly talking about Bambi again.
“We had other lives,” Behn said. “We were growing up, we were getting married, we were creating jobs. [Donnie] was in the Marines for a long time. Those were more important at the time. We’d left what we were doing at a very young age. So the life experiences that happened after took over and there was no reason to think about it until later on. But now it does bring joy to the people who we come into contact with.”
Added Dunagan: “It leaves me with some regret that I did not tell [more people] about it, apart from family. Because once it got out, we could get more done with Bambi than if we were the Prince of Wales with a million bucks in our pocket.” He points to an appearance he made recently at a mall alongside his town’s mayor to fundraise for their struggling local Salvation Army chapter, where they easily earned enough to overcome its deficit. “Not because of the mayor, or the soldier, but because of Bambi,” Dunagan said.
The beloved film has remained prominent in their collective consciousness ever since returning to the Disney fold. “Somebody tried to take Bambi away from me now, I’m 82 years old, but I bet I could still box,” Dunagan laughed. “You’re not taking Bambi away from me!”
Bambi: The Walt Disney Signature Collection is now on Digital HD and Blu-ray. Watch an exclusive clip from the bonus features:
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