Turner Classic Movies
Dunagan, Don - Interview
Written by Diana Saenger   

There were several voice talents for each character in Bambi since some of the animals grow from babies to adults. Bambi has four voice talent credits - Bobby Stewart II (Baby Bambi), Donnie Dunagan (Young Bambi), Hardie Albright (Adolescent Bambi) and John Sutherland IV (Adult Bambi).

Donnie (Don) Dunagan is the only actor of the group still alive and was contacted by Disney to appear on the DVD. He consented, and agreed to several interviews. I was happy to speak to the voice of Bambi.

Voice of Bambi Don Dunagan as a kid © Walt Disney Home Entertainment

Donnie (Don) Dunagan was born in Texas in 1934 during the depression era. His family moved to Memphis when he was a young child.

"We were very poor," said Dunagan. "My mother entered me in a contest at the Orpheum Theatre. I won the contest and $100, and a talent scout who saw the contest convinced my parents I should go to Hollywood."

Dunagan's family boarded a train for Los Angles with the agent and was put up at a hotel by RKO studios.

"My mother thought we were really living," he said. "She was terribly impressed. We had never seen anything like that."

The Dunagans stayed in town long enough for Donnie to do some screen tests. "I remember that and it was fun, but then we went to San Antonio to stay with my grandparents and my mother put me in another talent contest. I was 4-years-old now, and I had learned a silly dance that a black man taught me."

Dunagan won that contest too, but the really good news came a few days later when a telegram arrived. "I remember my mom shouting with joy," said Dunagan. "They had looked at the screen tests and wanted us back in Hollywood. A few days later we were back on a train. I was a bit of a rogue though mostly good, but I was tired of that train business."

The family got picked up by a fancy car at grand central station in Los Angles and taken to another hotel. "We stayed in a little apartment then they (his parents) rented a house, and then bought a house in Beverly Hills off the movie money," Dunagan explained.

Things did look bright for the young toe-headed Donnie. He landed his first role as one of the Carey children in RKO's "Mother Carey's Chickens" in 1938. Dunagan made four films in 1939, he played Peter von Frankenstein in Universal's "Son of Frankenstein" and Terry Kennedy, Jr. in "The Forgotten Woman." For RKO Dunagan appeared in "Fixer Dugan" (unaccredited) and Baby Prince Richard in "Tower of London."

"Rowland V. Lee cast me in "Mother Carey's Chickens" and "Son of Frankenstein." He should have gotten the metal of honor because all those actors had diction like they were off the Oxford University Stage with a British accent. I sounded like a 3-ft talk, 5- ½ year-old Alabama sheriff. In "Mother's Carey's Chickens" I had a large part as a little boy causing havoc everywhere."

In 1940 Dunagan's agent got a call from Disney. Walt Disney had seen him in "Son of Frankenstein" and wanted to test Donnie as a model for Bambi. "Walt wanted to use kids as models for the animators to use when they drew their animals so they had a more humanistic appearance," said Dunagan. "We went all the way to Burbank to sign a contract in 1940. I first met Walt about two or three days after signing the contract. I had made seven films at that point so I was 5 ½ going on 20. I wasn't jaded, but I was aware of things and I was very impressed how other people related to Mr. Disney. He was very gracious, but I knew he was a boss."

So how did Dunagan move from just a model to the voice of young Bambi? " I don't remember what triggered me getting the voice role. I do remember when I became the voice actor for young Bambi that accent changed. One day Walt came into the commissary where we were eating and sat down at our table. He made a comment about how my accent had moderated and how happy he was. Everyone laughed, because what he meant was little Bambi wasn't going to sound like the Alabama sheriff."

Dunagan remembers those years as happy times. "It was wonderful. Every experience was a delight. I had the impression then and later that every person and artist who worked for Walt held him in great respect. I got a little angry in my 30s and 40s when someone who had never met him would comment, 'he must have been a hard-nosed CEO.' I thought, well would someone put a company like Disney together during the depression if he was a wimp? But Walt was sensitive and hands on."

A Hollywood career for the small boy with blonde hair would end much too soon. His parents were hard working but Dunagan said they couldn't mange the success and the family spilt.

"We left Hollywood and by the time I was 13 ½, I was in a boarding school on my own," explained Dunagan. "I did well in school, and excelled in football and boxing. At 14 I was 6 feet tall and earned my Golden Gloves."

Dunagan attended the University of Alabama on a football scholarship before transferring to Virginia Tech  to study science. As a freshman, facing the Korean War Draft, he volunteered as a marine. Years later, the Marines sent him back to college and he completed his education, graduating with honors with a degree in Civil Engineering.   After graduation from boot camp as a Private, First Class, Dunagan became the youngest Assistant Drill Instructor in U.S. Marine Corps history, then the youngest Senior Drill Instructor (a Marine Sergeant by age 19). He then entered the Navy's Military Law-Justice School for JAG officers at the War College in Rhode Island, followed by the Army's training program for CIC special agents. Dunagan also received a Masters degree in Engineering Management, with honors, from the University of Vermont at Burlington, after which he was a candidate for a PhD in Mathematics, before leaving the U.S. Intelligence Agency for the private sector. And all of this time, he'd never told anyone about being the voice of Bambi.

After leaving the service, Dunagan lused his knowledge of intelligence and the law to management positions with corporations including New York Life, Gerstenhaber, Jacks Company and Rose Hills Memorial Parks Corporation.

The recipient of numerous U.S. Military combat and valor awards, Dunagan is most proud of carrying a wounded corporal off the battle filed under heavy fire during his tour of duty in Vietnam, and for being awarded "Citizen of the Year/Military Sector by the City of San Diego in 1977, for his part in pushing the U.S. Department of Defense to allow disbursement of food from service warehouses to widows of WWII servicemen.

With the release of "Bambi The Platinum Edition" on DVD, Dunagan was able to relive happy moments from his childhood and once again be part of a national treasure.

Voice of Bambi - Don Dunagan © Walt Disney Home Entertainment
"I was flabbergasted when I saw the movie for the first time as a little boy. I remembered wearing big head phones and being coached in parts to be scared or happy, but I didn't know Bambi's mother was taken down by a hunter."

Dunagan was also surprised at the new DVD. "I'm sure the people in animation will look at this DVD with all its trade secrets and say, €˜So that's how they did that.' "There are wonderful secrets especially on the second disc. I really enjoyed the viewing of how this movie was originally put together. This is the most expressive, intensive and affectionate labor of a renovation of any of the classic pictures in Disney history. It' amazing that it's been 65 years since I signed the contract, and now we're talking about "Bambi."

So how did Disney find Dunagan to ask him to participate on the DVD?

"I had never talked about my role for all kinds of human behavioral reasons. I've always disliked immodest and vane men, so I never talked about it. Last summer I was speaking at a charity event and a lady who knew about it made a comment. The local TV reporters there heard someone say, €˜Can you believe that guy up there is Bambi?'

"Scott McQueen, a Kodak employee saw the news and called me and Howard Green at Disney, who invited me in be involved in the release of DVD. They flew a film team to Texas and interviewed me in a hotel for two hours, and two months later they sent another team who spent another two hours to do the electronic media kit."

Dunagan has his own belief why Bambi is one of Hollywood's best classics. "That's the most valued question anyone can put to me," he said. "I've showed this film to children over and over. "Bambi" is not a word picture; there can't be more than 1000 words, and that's nothing compared to other films of that era. It's not like the comics and the stand up cartoons with fleeting jokes that everyone laughs at and four days later no one can remember what it was about. "Bambi" uses few words at the right time and the emotions of little animals that are the same emotions of people and little children.

"It tells a story that people still remember in the cortex of their mind and one they haven't since. Disney was a genius at this, the human sensitivity and life awareness - subtle, cute, a tear here and there - stories. "Bambi" endeared so many. What do you remember of films from years back? "Gone With The Wind" maybe."

At age 71, Dunagan's ceaseless energy continues in semi-retirement as he aids the underprivileged, keeps a busy schedule of mentoring, tutoring, physical fitness, and consulting. He resides in Texas with his wife of 13 years and finds great pleasure in talking about his young life in Hollywood, working with Walt Disney, and his role as one of the most endearing characters ever to come from The Walt Disney Company. Above all he's proud that his step-grandchildren know about his contribution to "Bambi."

"We have four magnificent grandchildren who now know that I'm the voice of Bambi, and they love it," said Dunagan. "When the news broke, the oldest one went to show and tell and proudly said, €˜My grandpa is Bambi!'"




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