I’m pretty excited to be able to say that I interviewed Bambi and Thumper, yes they are still alive and have amazing stories to share. Bambi, Donald “Donnie” Dunagan went into the military and didn’t want anyone that worked under him to know that was the voice of Bambi. I loved learning that little tidbit. I also loved how he shared that children send him pictures of Bambi all the time. He’s very passionate about that. Thumper, Peter Behn also had a few words to share with us.
A few Bambi and Thumper Interview Questions
So why don’t you tell us a little bit about him and how you ended up working at the Disney studio and doing the voice of Thumper.
Peter: Sure. My father started writing screenplays, I think in the 20s in the era of silent movies. And he wrote several, unknown and another that’s quite well-known or was in those days called the Big Parade. It was directed by King Vidor who was one of the premier directors in those days.
He then later went on to write the screenplay for Hells Angels which was Howard Hughes’ big blockbuster back when the first world war about the era of combat. And then during that time or after a little later in the 30s, he knew Walt Disney.
And he heard that a new movie was about to be done. And he brought me over for the voice auditions for the part of Bambi. And Donnie beat me out on that one because I had the wrong voice for that part. However, later Frank Thomas and one other of the –, I forget, who’s the other –?
Becky: It was Ollie and Milt.
Peter: Ollie, yeah. Ollie decided that my voice was right for the rabbit is the way they referred to it as I understand it initially. And never actually ever auditioned for Thumper, so they just went from there. I was four-years-old at the time. And then the recordings took place intermittently over a two-year period, and I was 5 when it all complete.
Becky: And that was Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston who are known in these circles as Frank and Ollie, nine old men and Milt Kahl who’s also one of the nine old men. All three very famous animators at Disney, highly specialized. So they worked very closely with Peter. And Donnie of course, Donnie you were a child actor. I know you had appeared in several films before you came to Disney to do Bambi. So, how old were you when you started on these films?
Donnie: Five. I finished at 6 ½.
How did you get into the business?
Donnie: The whole business? Oh, dear me. Everybody in this room is so wonderfully young. I love you. How many remember studying in school maybe the depression of 1929, 1940? It was grim. Ladies, I promise you, you cannot imagine. It was grim.
We were dirt poor. And I mean, certified dirt poor in the South. And my mother would take me down about two blocks away from where we lived to see a wonderful man dance on the corner on Saturday. We knew he was the cousin of a famous dancer named Peg Leg Bates, true story.
And I’m standing there at 3 ½, four years old you know I’m standing in a crowd. And it was the depression, no phones, no radios, no money, okay? People were there laughing about this wonderful man dancing on the corner for nickels and pennies. And I started imitating him. And I was barefoot. He had tap shoes. He’s cheating, right? And I’m barefoot. And I start dancing. Then they decided to put me in a talent contest. People went to talent contests in those days in local theaters because they were dirt poor and there was no entertainment, you know.
And I sang to a song I think called A Tisket, A Taskit with a paper bag as my hat and a stick from a tree as my cane. I won the darn thing. In the audience was a wonderful man who was there because his mother was ill with leprosy.
He was a bona fide talent scout in those days. This is, are you ready for this, 1938. All the way out from Los Angeles because his mother was ill. About two weeks later, cut this real short. We’re in Los Angeles, and I did seven movies, some of them as a costar on the marquee if you can believe that, huh.
I did a whole bunch of those films as a kid. Son of Frankenstein, Tower of London, some others. Then Mr. Disney called my mom on our kitchen phone.
We had an agent. You’ve got to have an agent in the business in those days, right? This guy was born with a bad attitude, and he was rude to my mother all the time. And I’m five years old. And he didn’t want us to do Bambi. “Oh, you can’t do that, that’s an animated cartoon thing.” I don’t know. Think about that one for a second, right? So I fired him.
So you fired him at five?
Donnie: I fired him at five years old. My mother was very nervous about it, but it worked really good, right. So then we went to the studio. It took a long time to get there, no freeways. And they treated us just wonderful, had a great time. I did seven movies before the age of 5 ½. Think about that for a second.
So much for a kid who wanted to really be at home with his bicycle and playing with the puppy dog, right? Boring, boring, boring. I’ve got Disney now, oh my. This is where they make all those little bitty guys have all this fun, right? And that’s how that started.
Becky: So, these guys went on to have amazing careers. Here you were a house builder and real estate and all that. You left the business and had an entirely different career. And Donnie went into the US Marine Corps.
Bambi is being re-released on blu-ray., it’s the 75thanniversary Walt Disney Signature collection Bambi will be available on Digital HD May 23rd and Blu-ray June 6th! In honor of the re-release we made a cake for Thumper since his favorite part is the clover anyway.
What was it like working with Disney himself? It must have been pretty humbling. Can you share?
Peter: Well, bear in mind, by that time Disney had become quite a businessman, and it wasn’t just Bambi that he was working on. I did meet him a couple of times but not on a regular basis. He wasn’t one dealing directly with me anyway. Maybe he was with Donnie, he needed a lot more supervision;
Anyway, he was with me and showed me the little Disney zoo that they had. At one time they had deer and some rabbits and other creatures so the animators could see the anatomy of the animals and help them with their drawings. And so I do remember being out there at that time. And he was a very nice man, so.
Donnie: Let me share with you a different bit of an experience then say along with Peter’s excellent sharing with you. Only because I had been in seven other films as a young kid, sometimes if you’re quiet they forget you’re there. It never really happened with me, but my wife here would argue with that. I was very disappointed in some of the studio activities with the people who were supposed to be the leaders, the executives, the owners, the number one producers.
Sometimes they would come around, different jobs and I was in a whole bunch of them, right? And the employees and cameramen and sound guys would say, “Watch out here comes the boss.” Watch out, here comes the boss? Huh? What does that tell you about leadership? It means you see artificial things, right? I’m an old troop commander. I understand that word leadership reasonably well, okay? Mr. Disney was not like that. When I first saw him, I thought maybe he was going to get a room or something.
I mean, he had his sleeves rolled up, and he was working, and they introduced us to him. We had a great time. Most of the time I saw him, I saw him often, all right. He was participating in things. He wasn’t, oh my gosh here comes the boss. He was, here comes Walt, here comes Mr. Disney, he’ll help. Ask him about this. Ask him about that. That’s called leadership. Very different. And that’s why Disney was successful.
Another Passionate Moment from Donnie
Donnie: If I live to be 1000 years old I couldn’t say it better than Peter did. The environmental profile, the forests, the reckless fire is spoken to by children in schools now. And I listen to them. And they pick up on that right away. Here’s an extension of Mr. Walt Disney’s Bambi, okay. I get one of these by children a month from all over the world.
And a couple I have, I can’t spell correctly you know. One a month minimum, Christmas time a couple more. And at least 2 ½ to 3 handwritten letters a week from children all over the world. To Disney who happens to be this old beat up fool back in the middle of West Texas, all right? To Disney, to Disney, to Disney, thank you, Disney, thank you Disney. If this doesn’t tell people that Bambi is forever, I’ll do push-ups in that parking lot for you.
You can enjoy extra footage and special surprises when you get your own copy of Bambi on blu-ray.