His acting career ended soon after the film’s release, and in 1952 he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He became the Marines’ youngest-ever drill instructor and served as a platoon commander in Vietnam, where he was wounded three times. He retired from the Marines in 1977 with the rank of major. Now 77, Dunagan lives in San Angelo, Texas.
On March 1, Walt Disney Studios released a two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo pack of “Bambi.”
Presbyterian Outlook: How did this come about, that you were chosen to be the voice of “Bambi” in the original Disney production in 1942?
DD: I was just 6 ½ years old. I’d already been a child actor in a couple of films, and Mr. Disney liked my look – I had these blond curls and big eyes. I was actually the facial model for Bambi, as well as the voice. Mr. Disney himself called my mom to ask her. We were the first child actors used in a Disney production, I found out later – prior to this time they’d used adult actors trying to sound like children.
PO: And were you instantly famous?
DD: Actually, my life went in another direction, and this became just part of my past for the longest time. I went into the Marine Corps, and didn’t want to tell anyone about it because I was afraid they’d immediately nickname me “Bambi.”
PO: You were probably right about that!
DD: The only person who knew was my commanding general, because he had my personnel file, and because of needing top secret clearance, it included everything about my personal history. He only used it on me once – when he wanted me to take a job I really didn’t want. The PX on the base was being audited, and he wanted me to audit the auditors. So he said, “You will do this, Mr. Bambi.” That was it. I had no choice.
PO: What was it like actually doing the recording? Were there a lot of people in the room with you? Were you reading the part, or did you have to memorize it?
DD: There were only a handful of people in the sound studio. They did the voices first, you know, and then the animation.
PO: And then the orchestration?
DD: Right, the orchestration was last. I was already reading at 4, so I had no problem with that – in fact, Mr. Disney had me read something for him as part of my interview. I’ve also always been able to memorize things, so the whole thing went pretty smoothly. The only time they had to do a “re-take” was when I was calling for mom, and one of the ladies sitting behind me said, “call her like you think she’s in danger,” and that was apparently all the coaching I needed. I only met the girl once who did the voice of Faline, and I never met the ones who did Flower and Thumper at all.
PO: Did you have any chance at all to enjoy the Hollywood scene at the time?
DD: Yes, I remember I had a water gun on the set, which Boris Karloff had given me for Christmas, but they took it away from me, and if they find it around, I’d like it back. (editor’s note: Dunagan played Peter von Frankenstein and Karloff appeared in his classic role as the monster in the 1939 film “Son of Frankenstein.”)
I remember going over to Jimmy Stewart’s house one time and amusing him with an impression I did of him. He was really a nice guy. Two of his movies, “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” and “It’s A Wonderful Life,” are my all-time favorites.
PO: Do you enjoy current films?
DD: Frankly, I don’t see too many of them. The last one I liked was “Shane.”
PO: When I was thinking about seeing “Bambi” with my grandchildren, I was wondering if they’d be bothered by the part about losing his mother to the hunters – there’s a message there about humans vs. nature – but by the end I figured it was part of the cycle of life.
DD: Yes, exactly, and I thought there was also a powerful message when Bambi gets grazed by a bullet, and his Dad comes and says, “Get up!” I used that same philosophy a couple of times in the Marines.
PO: I really did enjoy the film, especially the vocal choruses and the orchestration, and I think that many folks in my readership will appreciate those parts as well.
DD: If you can, see it on Blu-ray; the technology is fantastic.
PO: I will, and thank you for your time!
DD: It was a pleasure.
Ronald P. Salfen is co-pastor of United Presbyterian Church, Greenville, Texas.