|Yesterday, I had the good fortune to interview Bambi. Well, not literally Bambi, but the man who voiced the deer as a child sixty-five years ago. For a long time, Don Dunagan did not talk much about being the voice of the iconic Disney character. This wasn't because he was ashamed of it, but because he had earned quite a different reputation via a long, distinguished career in the Marines. As he recalls on the new Bambi: Platinum Edition DVD, the image of a furry forest animal was not one he was trying to convey as a marine sergeant.
Dunagan volunteered during the Korean War and he later became the youngest Senior Drill Instructor in the history of the US Marine Corps. Bambi was his last role in film, but he previously appeared in a number of live action movies in the late '30s, including Son of Frankenstein, in which he played the offspring of Basil Rathbone alongside screen legends Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.
Today, at age 70, Mr. Dunagan still has some pretty vivid memories from his childhood involvement in one of Disney's earliest classics. It was only recently that the Disney Company caught up with him, with a bit of help from the sci-fi publication Video Watchdog. He is one of several who reflect on their experiences of working on the film in the Disc 2 documentary "The Making of Bambi: A Prince is Born."
UltimateDisney.com: Do you remember what it was like going into the studio to do the voice of Bambi?
Don Dunagan: At the time, I had done seven films, four with major speaking roles. I was 5 and a half years old going on 19. I was not jaded, but seasoned. I had gotten into the industry with dancing lessons, the type that black men did during the Depression. I did not audition for the film. Disney's people called my agent and told us they wanted to talk about me being a model for the character. At the time I didn't know Bambi from peanut butter.
What was the experience like once you were called in?
I went out to the studio in Burbank. They had me sit on a stool and I had big brown eyes back then. They'd tell me things like "Act happy" or "Open your eyes". These men sat there with big drawing boards. Then all I knew was that they were "Drawing Men." Now, I realize those drawing men were geniuses. They had to draw every single raindrop.
Nobody told us to be artificial or act a certain way. I would be told to "Act afraid" or that there was "great danger." I didn't even know my mother was being shot. At 5 and a half, it's easy to act afraid. "Mother? Mother?" (Dunagan recreates Bambi's dialogue from the most heartbreaking scene from the film.)
Later, I went into the sound booth and there was the timing issue. I was asked to say words faster or slower, to get the timing right. I wore headphones, and they had these 5" x 8" cards flipping through my lines. I was fascinated when my words ended up in the film. I didn't really understand everything that was going on.
Was going to Disney a big deal for you? Had you seen Snow White or any of Disney's shorts before?
Back then, before I got started with a career, my family was very poor. We lived in central Tennessee. I had never been to a theater, it was terrible. Then when I started working, I was somewhat cheated out of the magic. It was work, work, work. I was taken to two adult films, but I had never seen a cartoon. I knew about them. I was reading at 4, and I used to read Variety and other movie magazines. But it wasn't until later that I saw Disney's films.
What type of interaction did you have with Walt?
There were three visual encounters with Walt that I'm aware of. The first was very perfunctory. I was with a group of other children, and Walt took the time to give us a greeting. The second time, I was in a drawing room and Walt came over to me, and I thought he was going to ask me questions about the movie production. But no, he asked me if I was getting enough time off, if I played baseball. We talked about the cafeteria. They had great ice cream, I told him! He never asked me questions about production.
What else do you remember about Walt?
Walt Disney was a leader. I've seen bosses who couldn't lead a pack of soldiers across the street for free beer. I recall his leadership. I had a good memory at a young age, and Walt triggered it. Walt was all over the place on the film, but he was not disturbed. As a kid, I was conscious of people getting frustrated on productions, and Walt wasn't. Now, I understand that Mr. Disney was a pioneer. Other animation studios hired adults to do a fascimile of childrens voices. Disney brought in children to do childrens' voices.
Did you stay in touch with the other cast members?
No, I haven't. I just learned that Peter Behn, the actor who played Thumper, is alive. He recorded interviews for the DVD as well, and he looks quite healthy. So does Cammie King, the voice of Faline. I would like to meet Thumper. I've always envied the role of Thumper.
What are your thoughts on the upcoming sequel Bambi and the Great Prince of the Forest?
I didn't discover that until the last time the crew was here to shoot for the film kit. I was flabbergasted. Didn't know it was being made. Not a clue! But there's a feature on the second disc, and I think it looks really clever and magnificent.
Today, Bambi is considered a cultural icon, a landmark in cinema, and an artistic pinnacle for Disney. Did you ever think while making the film that you'd be talking about it 60 years later?
In seventy years, what are we enjoying the most? Something that was made 65 years ago. It's amazing.
Many thanks to Mr. Dunagan for taking the time to reflect on Bambi and to the fine people of Buena Vista Home Entertainment for setting up this interview.
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