Grit of a Warrior with the Heart of Bambi
Dunagan would excel in his military training and became the youngest drill instructor in Marine Corps history.
Lying on the ground, wounded from gunfire as a cacophony of screams, cries and blasts permeated all around him, Donnie Dunagan heard the pleas of a young marine under his command. “It’s late September 1967. I was shot once before and now I’ve been shot again. I’m down and two other lieutenants are down. There are a bunch of kids fighting who have a right to go home but we’re outnumbered. One of them stands over me and says, ‘Skipper, get up, get up, we need you.” It’s at that pivotal moment that Dunagan recalled a scene from decades earlier. It’s a scene most of us have watched on the big screen, but it’s one that Dunagan experienced first-hand. The forest is on fire and the beloved lead in the Disney Classic Bambi is down. His father says, ‘Bambi, get up, you must get up’. “The Marine was telling me to get up just like the movie where the dad was telling Bambi to get up. “For me, that was the most significant scene in Bambi and in my own life,” said Dunagan.
San Angelo resident Dunagan is now eighty-four years old. The retired marine served twenty-five years in the service, three tours in Vietnam and earned multiple medals, including the purple heart. However, he says it’s a secret that he kept for decades that has enabled him to make the most difference. Dunagan was the facial model and voice of the title character in Bambi. To understand his journey, we must start at the beginning in the same way Bambi began.
Dunagan was born en route from Ireland to the United States just miles from the Galveston shore. Someone in a pickup truck gave the newborn and his parents a ride to San Antonio where Dunagan was placed in an incubator. “I have two birth certificates. The one in San Antonio is August 16, 1934, but I was born two to three days earlier on the ship where I was given a birth certificate from the captain whose name was Roan, which is also my middle name.” The unique story of Dunagan’s birth would become the first page in his own story which, has turned out to be quite the page-turner. “My parents came starving from Ireland and they starved here. People who didn’t experience it can’t perceive how intense the depression was. People with graduate degrees were standing in bread lines.” A job opportunity to make twenty cents an hour would take the family from San Antonio to Memphis, Tennessee. It was there that Dunagan found himself a part of a street act. “Ding-dings were how I registered distance at age three. Back then, stop signs had arms that came down and made noise. So, on Saturday mornings, my mother and I would walk two to three ding-dings away to watch a very tall black man named Sam who could dance like Ray Bolger or better. He had a victrola and crowds of twenty to thirty people at a time would form and throw him pennies and nickels.”
The toddler began mimicking the dancer and was invited for a duet. “You can’t imagine how austere we were and how hungry for entertainment we were.” The two had been performing together for a couple of Saturdays when a big limousine pulled up. “I later learned that Sam was related to a famous Vaudevillian performer on Broadway, Peg Leg Bates and someone in this fancy car knew him. The person in the car handed something to Sam and the crowd cried out, ‘a double sawbuck.” In the 1930s,a double sawbuck was the colloquial term used for currency valued at $10. Sam ran off with the money while Dunagan danced by himself. Sam returned minutes later and gave Dunagan’s mother half of the sawbuck. “I didn’t really understand why everyone was cheering at the time or how much money it was.” The kind gesture allowed the Dunagan’s to pay their rent and receive change back.
With the help of Sam and other friends, Dunagan competed in a Memphis talent show that was considered the chance of a lifetime. The prize money was $100. Wearing a home-made top hat and what he called cheating tap shoes (tap-shoes stuffed with tissue due to being a size too big), three-year-old Dunagan tapped danced his way to the grand prize to the tune of “Tisket a Tasket.” The next-day, the Dunagan family would return Sam’s kindness. “My dad made a homemade envelope and put half of the prize money in there. I thought Sam was going to collapse. I just thought it was a great day. I didn’t understand then how significant of a gesture that was. It was income equivalent to about two and a half years for a laborer.”
For the screen test, Dunagan’s mother curled his hair. “She gave me these big barrel curls and used something that smelled just awful. I hated that curly hair.” Dunagan’s curls and cuteness won over the producers who found the three-year-old undistracted by the lights, cameras,and even the goat that he auditioned with. Dunagan was signed to a contract where his first role was in the 1938 film Mother’s Carey’s Chickens, directed by Rowland Vee Lee.
Roles in Fixer Dugan,The Forgotten Woman, The Tower of London, Vigil in the Night and Meet the Chump followed. It was his last film that would play a significant role in his own life and endear his performance to generations. “By then I was four and a half years old and we were living in Westwood, California. We had our very first house and our very first car. Walt Disney called my mother on the wall phone in our house. I wouldn’t have known who Walt Disney was from a five-gallon milk cow. I still hadn’t been to but just one movie at the time. He had just built a new studio in Burbank and asked my mother if I could be the facial model for a cartoon he was working on.”
While the Dunagans were excited about the opportunity, a “cartoon” wasn’t a job that the young actor’s manager thought he should accept. “He was very rude to my mother, so at four and a half years old I fired him. When Mr. Disney heard about that, I think it endeared me to him more than my stupid curly hair.”
re-released in theaters multiples times and celebrated its 75th anniversary with a special
DVD-bonus release in 2017. One to two times a week, for several hours a day for eight months, Dunagan would sit on a stool in front of artists who would use his facial expressions to draw and animate the character of Bambi. “I had no idea what the story line was and frankly I was getting bored just sitting there all day. The artist would say, ‘look unhappy or look afraid.’ One of the artists asked me if I had ever eaten anything really bad. A few days before,my mom had given me castor oil and I told the artist that it was awful. He asked, ‘How awful was it?’ I turned up my face and nose and said, ‘really, really bad.’ The artist said, ‘That’s great. Hold it.’ I had to hold that pose while they drew.” That pose ended up becoming what Dunagan refers to as the castor oil kiss scene or where a young female fawn kisses Bambi.
It wasn’t until nearly a year later that Disney decided to give Bambi a voice and Dunagan was called back into the studio to record the voice of the young deer. The project ended up taking several years to make. “It took Mr. Disney seven extra years to produce it. The film was too long, and he had to cut more than 2,000 feet of film to get it into theaters by Christmas 1941.”
Before the title was placed on the marquee, a pivotal scene in America’s own history would change the trajectory of not only the film but our nation. On December 7, 1941, Dunagan (then age seven) was in his front yard waiting for the ice cream truck. “I watched as the ice cream man pulled onto my street, but then he stopped two houses away. He was listening and staring at the radio like people used to in those days. What sounded like an exciting newscast was on. I asked, ‘Are you okay sir?’ He just stared at the radio and said,‘We’re in it now. Oh,dear God, we’re in it now. We’re in this lousy war like my dad was.’ Then he turned to me and said, ‘I hope you’ll be okay.’ I had no idea what he was talking about, but he drove off without giving me any ice cream.”
It would be children of London who would first watch Bambi. “London was being bombed, so out of his own pocket, Mr. Disney paid for cans of the film to be sent to England so children there could see it.” Bambi was released to American theaters in 1942. In 2011, the National Film Registry of The Library of Congress recognized the film. “Disney was the first producer to portray environmentally-sensitive scenes. He wanted Bambi to be the icon to protect forests. We went to the federal building in California and he introduced me and proposed his idea. He offered to do the artwork pro-bono.” The U.S. Forest Service used that artwork for a year before Smokey the Bear was released.
Bambi would be Dunagan’s final film role. After experiencing a private tragedy and losing his family, Dunagan became an orphan. He lived in a boarding house and worked to support himself. “I wanted to be a doctor and had a football scholarship but then I got a draft notice for a physical during the Korean War.” Dunagan was just eighteen years old when he became a marine. Upon graduation, he received special orders for drill instructor school and attempted to sew the stripes on his uniform. “The drill sergeant said, ‘This guy can’t be a drill instructor. He’s only a private first class and a crooked one at that.’ I had sewed my stripes on crooked.” Sewing skills aside, Dunagan would excel in his military training and became the youngest drill instructor in Marine Corps history. He was part of an experimental training where he was able to attend JAG school at the Naval Justice Academy. He served eleven years in Counter Intelligence at the height of the Cold War. He served three tours in Vietnam and earned three purple hearts.
There was one secret Dunagan never shared with his brothers while serving. It was a secret he didn’t share with his wife until after two years of marriage. No one knew about Dunagan’s Hollywood history until a media story in 2005. “I got a call from a wonderfully grisly old Sargeant in North Dakota. He told me, ‘We could’ve handled Frankenstein. We called you worse than that and you know it wouldn’t have mattered because you got us home sir. But we wish we knew about Bambi; we would’ve beaten you up about Bambi.”
At eighty-four, Dunagan is an early riser, still doing push-ups and sit-ups every day. He entertains a number of speaking engagements with children. He lends his time to raising awareness about breast cancer in men, assisting homeless veterans and participating with a number of other military-related causes. After the military, Dunagan went on to earn a PhD in mathematical physics and offers online tutoring to Navajo Indians.
As a man who experienced first-hand the gruesome reality of war, he is disgusted with the brutal way that Hollywood now portrays violence. He instead chooses to focus his time for family-oriented projects. He most recently recorded a reading of an audio book for children. “I’m very busy, but I hope it’s a good busy. Every time I go to Chicago, Los Angeles or San Francisco, I enjoy the people, but I don’t love the traffic, the noise and the hoopla. When I’m somewhere else, I can’t wait to get back to my cats, my dog, my wife and the wonderful people of San Angelo.” †