After a long stint away from Hollywood, the voice of Disney’s “Bambi” is fine with being fawned over once again thanks to the classic film's re-release on Blu-ray.
At only six years of age, actor Donnie Dunagan already had six motion pictures under his belt when Walt Disney tapped him to be the voice and expression model for the brave little deer at the center of his 1942 film.
“Mr. Disney called my mother in Westwood, California, and told her he would like me to come to the studio and talk about being the facial model for an animation story of a little deer,” Dunagan remembers. “My Mother and I laughed and tried to understand how even wonderful Disney could put my child face and eyes on a little deer."
“I saw Walt Disney many times,” recalls Dunagan. “He was a leader; all over the place, helping, coaching, laughing. Even a kid like me back then could sense that he was keenly respected by the animators and production people…In half of my prior six movies, on-camera roles, I came to understand the differences in crew and actors, and responding to ‘The Boss’ coming around. Many were clearly in fear. This was not so with Mr. Disney. You could see the positive reactions, all the time: workers, the 'drawing men,' all would say: ‘Here he comes, ask Walt, he is coming...he will know what to do, Walt is here, show him that....’ etc. That is what real leaders do. He built a major company during a grim economic time in America, and the people at Disney were his family.”
There were other bonuses for a six-year-old actor: “The ice cream in the dining room was great!”
Like many child performers, Dunagan experienced family troubles and left show business - essentially living on his own from age 13; in adulthood he found a long career in the United States Marine Corps. “In many ways. Bambi had to fend largely for himself, rather young, and so did I,” he says. “He had to learn some hard realities at a young age and stand up to threats and real danger. So did I. He made it, despite much, and tried to stand as an example. I hope I have too.” He zealously never revealed his past onscreen identity with the troops under his command. “I was worried that some of them would write home to say “Mom, guess who my commanding office is? Lt. Bambi!’ I did not think that it would add to our combat readiness!”
Now, at 77, Dunagan is thrilled to embrace his past. “As I have grown older, I’ve listened to people talk about it when they did not know I was a part of it,” he says. “I grew to realize that Mr. Disney had let me become part of a never-ending love story in this world. My debt to him is great…I could be working in the White House and children could care less. But let someone say ‘That dude over there was the face and voice of Bambi,’ and I am an immediate adopted grandfather to them. That is just an unmatchable joy, and a real responsibility.”