Meet Donnie Dunagan and Peter Behn
Before you say “who?” they are best known for their on-screen animated characters in one of Walt Disney Studios most beloved movies. Dunagan was the voice of young Bambi while Behn gave life to young Thumper in Disney’s classic Bambi celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. Up until five years ago few people really knew much about the actors who breathed life into the characters from Disney’s 1942 animated classic. Both men lived their lives for the past seven decades quietly with Bambi and Thumper as sort of a footnote to their storied careers which had little if anything to do with the entertainment business after childhood. Dunagan reflects “I thought it was kinda vain to brag and that’s not how I am.” Behn similarly agrees “I have never been one to bask in the glory of what I did. I am very proud today that I was part of this enduring legend but I’ve had my life and kinda been my own person all along.”
“I never said a word about the movies,” Dunagan confides. “I made seven or eight movies before the age of six-and-a-half. One movie after the other…bang, bang, bang, bang. And I never said a word about them.” That is until he was in the Marine Corps and a general was handed a secret folder on Dunagan’s life.
“Two months before I was going to retire from the Marine Corps, he teased me and in a nice way blackmailed me into some extra duties,” Dunagan recalls. He was being enlisted by his commander to do a boot camp audit of the auditors in San Diego. “He reached out over on the corner of his desk and patted this secret folder,” that Dunagan confesses he never saw before. He recounts the general looked at him and smiled and said “Major, I guess you will do the audit won’t you Major Bambi?” It was the first time that anyone had revealed Dunagan’s secret life as an actor and as the voice of Bambi.
Dunagan later learned the secret file was the result of a background check for White House clearance that had traced his life all the way back to birth.
His work as a child actor in front of the camera caught the attention of Walt Disney. Living in Westwood, California, Dunagan had at least six movies to his credit. After seeing a photo of Dunagan in a local newspaper “Mr. Disney called my mother and wanted me to be the facial model for Bambi.” Once word hit the street that Disney had contacted the Dunagan family, Donnie’s agent recommended that he turn down the role claiming to have a bigger part for him. Dunagan admits he really didn’t care much for his agent and after the agent was rude to his mother, “I fired him on the spot in my house at the age of five-and-a-half.”
Once on the Disney lot working as the reference model for Bambi, Dunagan recalls having lunch with his mom in the studio commissary and Walt stopped by to sit with the child-actor and his mother. “He asked my mom if I could do the voice and my mom said something clever to him like ‘of course.’”
Behn was also living in the Los Angeles area as his father worked as a screenwriter. When the elder Behn learned that the Disney Studios was looking for a child actor for the part of Bambi, Behn recalls his father thought he was right for the part. However the studio thought otherwise. “I failed the initial audition,” Peter reflects that perhaps he was a bit too rambunctious for the role. It was the legendary animation team of Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston that saw something in the young Behn that later caused him to be cast in the role of Thumper. “They decided my voice would be fine for the rabbit,” Behn laughs.
With work on Bambi completed the Dunagan’s and Behn’s moved away from California and lived their separate lives for decades.
It wasn’t until 2011 on ABC’s The View, that Dunagan and Behn first met and these days they have been busy working the press circuit talking up their careers and what it was like to participate in the making of Bambi. One thing that was obvious from the start of my interview is that these two guys really enjoy each other’s company and perhaps they are trying to make up for lost time.
The chemistry between these two voice actors today doesn’t miss a beat just like Bambi and Thumper in the forest. What is remarkable is that during the production of the film, there never was an opportunity for the two youngsters to work together. Both recall they just showed up as scheduled and delivered their lines at separate recording sessions. Dunagan says he worked with a voice director who just fed him the lines to repeat back during the recording of dialogue. There was no script to memorize. Behn confirms the voice director recited the line and then asked him to repeat it back. “He would read the lines the way they were supposed to be inflected and so forth. Sort of sentence by sentence, not paragraphs but short segments that they later pieced together,” Behn states. The actor admits “I have no idea how many takes they did of each phrase or sentence.”
“I was in a sound booth most of the time with a very courteous lady who would coach me what to say,” Dunagan remembers. “And she would have flash cards, pencil flash cards, five-by-eight cards with what Bambi looked like” and Donagan says the woman would explain to him what Bambi was doing in an attempt to coach him in his dialogue.
In the scene where Bambi’s mother is shot, Dunagan recalls that the voice coach was very specific in her instructions about what happened. She never mentioned the word “killed.” Rather Dunagan says the woman told him “your mother’s been injured. She did not say shot. You have to find your mother,” and that is when he came up with the haunting line “mother, mother” which echoes through the forest as well as our collective memories today.
My time with these two gracious gentlemen was way too short. I am certain they have more tales to tell and stories to share about their work on this Disney film as well as how it feels to have such a lasting impact for past generations as well as for fans to come. While both men enjoy their new found stardom Peter describes their reaction as an honor. “We appreciate being involved in a legacy like this. It is not often that 75 years later something like this continues. It’s kinda fun to have been a part of it.” Both men smile as I thank them for providing us with two of the most endearing characters to ever come from The Walt Disney Company.
Bambi was released in 1942 during World War II and took over five years to make due to its exquisite hand-drawn artwork and attention to detail. The movie holds the number three spot on the American Film Institute’s “10 Top 10” honoring the 10 greatest animated films of all time. This year Bambi takes its place in the Walt Disney Signature Collection honoring groundbreaking films created or inspired by the imagination and legacy of Walt Disney. It is available on Blu-ray, DVD and On-Demand June 6th.