GeekDad Chats with Donnie Dunagan and Peter Behn AKA Bambi and Thumper

Entertainment Movies

Believe it or not, Disney’s Bambi is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. Originally released in 1942, Bambi was Disney’s fifth full-length animated feature. And because of Word War II, it would be the last true feature until 1950’s Cinderella.

If you’re looking to add this classic to your home library (and you don’t already own it), then you’re in luck! Next week sees a brand-new release of Bambi (on multiple formats) as part of the Walt Disney Signature Collection. The film is already available on Digital HD and Disney Movies Anywhere, but it comes out on Blu-ray, DVD, and on-demand on June 6.

To commemorate the anniversary of this Disney classic and its imminent rerelease, we had the opportunity to sit down with the original voices of young Bambi and Thumper: Donnie Dunagan and Peter Behn. Both were young children at the time – only 5 or 6 years old – and neither pursued a career in the industry after Bambi (though Dunagan had already been in several films as a child actor). As a result, both had perfectly “normal” childhoods, went on to live their lives on their own terms, and have no regrets.

Peter Behn (Thumper) came from an industry family. His father was a screenwriter dating back to the silent era, including films such as The Big Parade and Howard Hughes’s Hell’s Angels. For Bambi, Behn began recording at the ripe old age of 4, and the process was spread out over two years. He recalls working with a vocal coach to ensure he had the proper inflection, but mostly he remembers the small zoo that was on the Disney lot where animators could watch and draw real animals. Can you blame him?

For his part, despite his age, Donnie Dunagan (Bambi) remembers everything, almost down to the tiniest detail. “I remember the whole thing, vividly. That was my seventh film, and my first was in the winter of 1938. And I remember that one vividly, too. That’s a gift, by the way. That’s DNA; you don’t earn that one.”

I asked Dunagan if he recalled the audition and what he was asked to do, and interestingly, he was already so well established as a child actor that Disney chose him specifically for the role!

“I don’t remember an audition. I know they had auditions, but I had already done six films as a live actor – as a little runt kid with a lot of curly hair. Mr. Disney called my mother personally. I remember this well. Now, we didn’t know much about Disney at the time. My mother was very happy and took notes during the call. Then we drove up to see my agent, and we told him I was going to do an animated film with the Disney company. My agent did not like that, and he did not want me to do it. He was almost scolding my mother, telling her, ‘Don’t let him do this! I’m going to get him into a Western.’ He really pushed my mother hard. And my mother was a very gentle person, so I fired him.

“I remember getting out of the car on the Disney lot and people telling me that this was where Mr. Disney made all those funny little creatures come to life. And I thought, ‘Wow! This isn’t going to be boring like some of the other films I’d made.’ Mr. Disney greeted us the first day there and made us feel like we were at home.”

In 2017, it’s not often that you get to chat with people who worked directly with Walt Disney, so I probed a little about what he was like. Dunagan explains, “It was a wonderful experience. I really admired how he handled people. I had been in several films, and on some sound stages when executives came around, people were like, ‘Oh my gosh, here comes the boss.’ They were not like that with Mr. Disney. I was very sensitive to this already. He was a worker: sleeves up, helping people left and right. He made a great impression on me.”

Behn wasn’t quite as seasoned as Dunagan. Prior to Bambi, he starred in a few short Jungle Juveniles films, but by his own admission, they hardly prepared him for working in the industry or on a Disney film. After Bambi, he moved with his family to Arizona and “was just an ordinary kid.” His father left Hollywood to become a professor and, later, an author of children’s books.

While they were making Bambi, Dunagan and Behn (and all of the other actors) recorded their lines in isolation. They never met the other actors voicing Bambi and Thumper as they grew older, and they actually never met each other in person until they made joint appearance on The View in 2011 – some 70 years after they played those parts.

Before he was cast as Bambi, though, Dunagan was initially hired to be a life model for the character. Disney wanted his animators to give Bambi humanlike features that would engage the audience and make the deer more personable. Dunagan was originally hired for his face – not his voice. But that would soon change.

“For several hours, I sat on a stool, and a whole bunch of men sat around me with a million pencils. They’d say, ‘Look left. Look right. Look afraid. Look happy.’ And I think they spent most of the time on the eyes. I’d hold a pose, and they’d draw what they wanted. Then we’d take a break and come back and draw some more. Then one day, I was sitting at a table with my mother, eating ice cream, and Mr. Disney came up. Not as a pompous executive but as a working leader. He sat down and asked my mother if I could do the voice of Bambi.”

And when Mr. Disney asks you to be the star of his new movie, you don’t say no. Even as a young kid, Donnie Dunagan was no dummy.

Still, despite being a young, incredibly aware child, Dunagan didn’t completely grasp the enormity of the people around him. Before Bambi, he starred in Son of Frankenstein with Boris Karloff (who taught him to play checkers on set). I asked Dunagan if he knew how larger-than-life and important Karloff and Disney were at the time.

“I didn’t have a clue. I was reading at 5, and people said I was 6 going on 19. But I didn’t have a clue. And the truth is that after I saw Bambi when it was released in 1942, I did not see it again until I was an adult. When I first saw it as an adult – I was a captain or a lieutenant in the Marine Corps at the time – I was overwhelmed. And I never talked about it.

“Think about this. In 1977, I’m a battalion commander at the Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego. I have drill instructors and hundreds of recruits on my hands. Then I saw in the newspaper that Mr. Disney was going to rerelease Bambi and put credits on it for the first time. Now mind you, I’m a battalion commander, and nobody knew anything about what I did. My thought was, ‘Oh my gosh. If he puts credits on this thing, and it’s shown in the base theater  – and I remember thinking this – these guys are going to write home, ‘Mom, guess what? My commanding officer is Major Bambi!’

“Bambi was a courageous figure. He evolved from a natural, healthy childhood into a very strong adult. He beat up the bullies. And he was very strong and courageous. But in those days, very few people had seen Bambi. They had just heard about it. I have some regrets I didn’t talk about it. Since Disney discovered I was alive about a decade ago, I’ve been able to get more positive things done – more not-for-profit things, more things for children, more things for Salvation Army – because of Bambi. That makes me regret a little that I didn’t talk about it.”

For Behn, though, there are no regrets. “I was able to have a perfectly normal childhood and had a great time as a child. I think I would’ve missed a lot of that if I had stayed in Hollywood.”

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