Jay learned a ton from this ‘Bambi’ voice actor interview
Bambi is a rare type of Disney animated film. It was ahead of its time and quite revolutionary too. A lot of techniques were created that are still used by Disney today. I was lucky to be able to interview Peter Behn and Donnie Dunagan, two people who long ago voiced young Bambi and Thumper. Here is what I learned about these people from this wonderful interview.
How did you get into acting?
Peter Behn: Well, I was four years old and my father was in the movie industry, he was a screen writer. He knew Walt and he knew the studio and he learned Bambi was about to go into production. They were having auditions for the part of Bambi, and the audition had about 30 kids involved. My voice was entirely wrong for the part, so it was rejected. Then, a few weeks later the animators and directors were listening to the voices again, in case there was another voice they could use. They heard my voice and decided it would be perfect for the part of Thumper.
What were the challenges in being a child actor at that time?
Peter: It was just what I was doing, I was an active kid. The voice recording sessions were half a day or so. I have been told there were a total of eight sessions over a period of two years.
What was one of your best memories on getting to work on this Disney film?
Peter: the most memorable part I guess was being shown around the studio lot and seeing the small zoo. It had a number of animals like deer, rabbits and a few others animals. They were there so the animators had the opportunity to see the actual animals and how anatomy worked and those things.
So what is it like for you to watch Bambi after all these years?
Peter: Well, we had a screening of the movie one evening which was very beautiful. We continue to improve the quality of the film and the image. They are about to come out with a new Blu-Ray version of this movie. It was special. Every time I see the movie it has a different feel and effect. It was remarkable, I really enjoyed it.
Did you get a chance to do any other acting after Bambi?
Peter: That was the only thing that I did. My family moved to Tucson, Arizona where my father became an English professor at the university there. We moved when I was 5 1/2 or so.
What would be some advice you would give people who want to get into voice acting?
Peter: I only know one other person who is a voice actor. That man is Clancy Brown. He is the voice of Mr. Crab on SpongeBob Squarepants. Anyways, he is a great guy.
How do you end up playing the part of young Bambi?
Donnie Dunagan: Well, I had been in six or seven films as a child actor. I think I had just finished the sixth or seventh film. And Mr. Disney personally called my mother. We lived in Westwood, CA near UCLA. He called my mother on the kitchen phone and introduced himself personally, asked us to come up. He asked for me to be the facial model for this wonderful animated story called Bambi. Honestly, we knew nothing at all about Disney. We were all excited, and my mother told my agent about doing an animated movie with the Disney company. The agent did not want it, he was angry about it. When I told some other people, they said I should have fired that guy. We loaded up for the long trip on the freeway from Westwood to the studios. Met some wonderful people. I posed on the stool in front of art men for several hours mixed over several days. Look left, look right, and I would pause and they would say ‘Hold it. Hold it!” and they would draw that expression.
What was one of the bigger challenges in voicing young Bambi?
Donnie: Well, Disney never minds anyone being wide open and honest. In all of the previous films, somebody always briefed us and the adult actors on what the story line was. I didn’t have a clue, and I had never seen a deer. Maybe in a book or two, but never a live deer. Now, we were dirt poor before all of these movies. I mean dirt poor in the South. The depression affected the whole country, and we were in it. Now this was a brand new, exciting adventure and I wanted to know what the story line was. So I am sure I pestered a couple of people, and finally a nice lady said to the young lady to bring a dawn with me and let it be a part of the movie, and I understood some of it. I kept pestering my poor mother about ‘what does a deer look like when it is really moving around?’ So she took me to a zoo in Griffith Park, somewhere there in LA. There was a deer down in a pen just standing there. After a couple minutes of visiting the next time I was with my mother I said “Mother, I don’t want to be a deer, that guy is boring!” My poor mother who was always worried about me getting fired I guess said “Oh, don’t say that’. A couple days later, I am walking down the hall going somewhere I was supposed to go in a brand new building and Mr. Disney was walking in the opposite direction towards me with another man. He pulls me to the side, he was a very courteous wonderful man all the time. He says ‘Donnie, I heard you went to the zoo.” I said ‘Yes sir’ and he says ‘You saw a deer’ and I said ‘Yes sir’, and then he says ‘Don’t worry, our Bambi won’t be boring’.
Did you continue with acting after this role?
Donnie: No. Pearl Harbor probably delayed Mr. Disney from releasing Bambi when he really wanted to, before the war. Pearl Harbor ruptured my family, some deaths and other tragedies that occurred later. The week of my fourteenth birthday, from a very interesting couple of years before that. In a boarding house, by myself, supporting myself. I never talked about the films all the way through school and football and boxing. I never said a word about any of the movies or some other things. That is just a function of not liking, bragging people or pushy people. But in recent years, since Disney found out that this old guy is alive, I have had a great time. I have no reservations whatsoever anymore about talking about Bambi. It has allowed me to do more darn good than I have ever been able to do with anything else in my life.
What kind of advice or suggestions you would give to people who want to try out for a role like this?
Donnie: Be yourself. If you have some talent and you can modify your personality temporarily for thirty minutes or something it’s easy to facsimile another role. But if you want to get into live theater, Shakespeare type theater, just be yourself. Let the casting director and the producer, let an agent say ‘Hey, we can take that self, that natural person and maybe do this or this’. Don’t go in role playing.