Another one of those in awe moments while on a press trip. Last week during the #BambiBluray portion of the #PiratesLifeEvent, we had the privilege of meeting the young voices of Bambi and Thumper. Donnie Dunagan (Bambi) and Peter Behn (Thumper) are two men with stories. Imagine being a young boy and given the opportunity of a lifetime to work on one of Walt Disney’s classic films. Meeting these two men and hearing their stories was such a special experience. It’s a pleasure to share this interview with you.
The Young Voices of Bambi and Thumper
Moderated by Becky Cline, the Walt Disney Archives director, Donnie and Peter share their stories of voicing two of the most beloved Disney characters.
Becky: This morning we have the pleasure of sitting with Peter Behn who is the voice of Thumper in Bambi and Donnie Dunagan who is the voice of Bambi. So, I’m just going to give you a little information about each of these folks, and then you can throw out questions, and we’ll answer them all. I’m Becky Cline. I’m the director of the Disney archives. And so from a historical point of view out try to answer any other questions you might have about Bambi if you need some background information, I’d be glad to give it.
Becky: So, I’ll start with Peter here. Peter, as I said was the voice of Thumper. I think you got in the business because of your dad, Harry Behn who was a screenwriter and children’s book author and Renaissance man, artist, all kinds of wonderful things.
Peter: Starting in that order.
Becky: 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.
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 housebuilder and real estate and all that. You left the business and had an entirely different career. And Donnie went into the US Marine Corps.
Did you guys watch the Bambi film over and over?
Peter: Well, I was at the premiere, and then I didn’t see the film for quite some time. And back in those days, I don’t think it was even out on any kind of media, so we didn’t have the opportunity of seeing it. And later, of course, it came out on VHS and then on DVDs and that sort of thing. So, I have seen it over the years a few times but not a lot.
Donnie: So I and Peter saw it, at the premier. We were so young. Mr. Disney may have wanted to release Bambi Christmas of 41, but after December 7, 41, Pearl Harbor, entering into war. So, he waited until 1942 to release it and I saw it when Peter saw it at the premiere. I’d love to tell you, that we saw it and saw it and saw it, but we did not, okay. My battalion almost saw it. We were almost frightened. Truly, fast-forward to 1977. Bambi has been away for 25 years. I’m retired commander of Marine Corps Boot Camp. Think about that for a second, all right. Okay? And now Disney in the newspapers in San Diego and it said Mr. Disney is going to release Bambi for the first time in a long time, reel to reel.
Remember the reel to reel, guys? And in the rumor was that he’s going to put credits on it. Credits on it, right? I’d love to tell you I’m bulletproof and all this stuff, I’m not, all right. My fear was, oh my gosh, if he puts credits on these things and shows it in the base theater, right, I got all these drill instructors working for me and all this stuff, right? Donnie Dunagan, blah, blah, blah, blah. Peter Behn, blah, blah, blah, blah, right? I could just see them, those drill instructors and captains working for me. Dear Mom, guess what. My commanding officer is Bambi.
You are one tough deer.
Donnie: Bambi was a champion guy, right? He beat up the bad dogs and everything. But most of the young people then had not seen it. You know, and they thought Bambi was a little crazy guy on the ice, you know kind of thing. I pushed my chicken button. I didn’t say anything.
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. It 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.
Can you talk about the process a little? We know it’s very different today when we go into the sound booth and record. Can you tell me how it was when you guys did it?
Peter: Well, I’m sure you all know that there’s a difference between doing voices for animation versus what they call lip- synch. Animation has nothing to do with lip-synching. The voices are recorded first, and then the animators take that and create what they feel will work with those voices.
What I remember is going into the sound booth where they have a voice director who informed my reading abilities weren’t all that good. So the director would read the lines with the inflection that was needed. And then I would say them back or mimic them.
I can’t recall how many takes they took, but I’m sure there was a number. The thing I remember most is that the recording equipment was right in the sound room with us. And it was a disc. I don’t know, maybe as a kid, it wasn’t this big, but I suspect it was about 20 inches in diameter, a little bigger than an old LP. And you know the arm that came over and the needle that was a cutting device. And it had to be because it’s cutting into some media. I don’t think it was wax, but it wasn’t vinyl either. Do you know what it was?
Becky: It’s called transcription discs I believe. But I’m not sure exactly. I’m not sure. It might have been some form of plastic.
Peter: I think it was some form of plastic. Am I right?
Becky: Yeah, they’re large.
Peter: You’ve got some in your archives, right? So anyway, I was fascinated by the mechanical things. And I recall that it was kind of cool. So, that’s sort of it. Does that answer your question?
You guys recorded separately?
Peter: We never knew one another. We never saw each other until what, ten years ago?
Donnie: We were older.
What was it like seeing your facial expressions on an animal?
Donnie: Excellent question. Remember when the mother is shot, right? Thank goodness off-camera. I had the original copy of the book. Mr. Disney had followed the book verbatim, page for page. If you had seen it on camera, it’d have been terrible. It’s already bad enough. We hear about it all the time, “the mother’s been shot.” When that recording was required, I did not do it as well as I should have.
“Mother, mother, mother.” You know, I’m having the time of my life. You know, this cannot be a bad time. And my coach was a lady in the sound booth like Peter mentioned. And she said, “no, do it again, do it again.” I meet a very bright lady who said, and I’ll never forget, “your mother’s in trouble.”
Now, she didn’t tell me this, this is fun, right. She said your mother’s in trouble. Donnie, maybe your mother’s in trouble. You need to plead your mother. Call your mother, call your mother. That caught my attention pretty quick. You know I’m just a kid, right. Mother, mother, mother. Now, that took some doing with me. Peter was faster at this than I was. I took some coaching.
So, before you got married what line worked better with the girls? Bambi or the Marine guy?
Donnie: I love this. Thank you. We’re from an era where there’s a rather large inventory of men who have egos that don’t match reality. Is that fair to say, ladies? They wouldn’t do today what I’m about to tell you, okay.
At 25 years in the Marine Corps and I’m here which is a miracle. And then right after that, I have 25 years with this lady, (pointing to his wife) with a camera in her hand always, who has kept me alive more than once. It’s true, okay? And I’m lucky to be here, mostly thanks to her. She did not know about these things. I never talked about these things. Even after the Marine Corps found out right before I retired, I never talked about it before.
I was raised around some men who would say, if you were brighter, that’s bad. If you had done things in your life, don’t boast, you know. If other people find out about it, that’s fine but don’t walk around, look at me, look at me stuff, okay. Then and now, okay. So, we knew each other for a long, long time and were married. She finally found all seven or eight movies, hundreds of fan letters in cardboard boxes, okay and came in the house. “What’s this?”
This is the 75th anniversary of Bambi, which is amazing to me. But going forward into the future, what do you see for Bambi? What do you hope it accomplishes in this world?
Peter: Well, very frankly one of my strongest feelings about the movie is the amazing fact that back in the 30s, Walt Disney was far ahead of his time in the environmental concerns. I think the movie is truly a very strong statement in favor of protecting the environment and with the concern that man was ruining it or even make it worse which unfortunately I personally believe.
It’s one of my strong beliefs that we have to do everything we can to keep it from getting worse. But it’s just, it’s a forward awareness and thinking that Walt obviously brought to the movie. He had to know what he was doing. I think it was very strong. And I think as time goes on perhaps that aspect of the movie will be –, will resonate and become even more important and more –.
The people will be more aware of that aspect of the film. At least I hope so.
A very powerful message. And 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.