The Voice of ‘Bambi’ Was Really a Decorated Marine

April 12, 2019 Updated: August 9, 2019

Retired Marine Major Donnie Dunagan had a secret he didn’t want anyone to know–including his own wife.

(Donnie Dunagan)
(Donnie Dunagan)

But after being married for two years, his wife found out Dunagan’s secret.

In an old box, she learned that Dunagan, when he was a child, was the voice and model for Bambi, the popular Disney character.

Dunagan didn’t mind that much that his wife found out, but he didn’t want it to spread widely.

He served for a quarter-century, fought two tours in Vietnam, even earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. But for decades, he harbored a dark reminder of the past he'd left behind.He was Bambi.

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In 1977, when Disney planned to release Bambi in theaters a second time, is when he became stressed. At the end of the movie, there would be credits, which included Dunagan’s name.

“If Disney does this to me, I can just see gunnery sergeants and captains writing home and saying, ‘Dear Mom, guess who my [commanding officer] is?'” Dunagan told the Marine Times.

Dunagan had a storied career in the Marines after his time as a child actor.

He was once the youngest drill instructor in history, he received three Purple Hearts, and he later became a counterintelligence specialist during the Cold War.

Still, he remembers fondly his time working with Walt Disney.

“When Bambi is kissed by a doe, he gives a look of disgust. We spent an hour on that look,” he remembers. “‘Look like something bad has happened,’ they’d say. But I was having the time of my life. Finally someone said, ‘Pretend like you just had castor oil.’ That did it.”

One of the reasons he wanted to keep a secret was to avoid bragging about his famous movie role.

“No chance!” he told NPR about whether he talked about his role.

“I never said a word to anybody about Bambi, even to you. When we first met I never said a word about it. Most of the image in people’s minds of Bambi was a little frail deer, not doing very well, sliding around on the ice on his belly,” he said in 2015.

Later, word spread that he voiced the famous cartoon deer, and a Marine whom he had worked for several times called him into his office.

“I go in his office and he says, ‘Dunagan! I want you to audit the auditors,’ ” Dunagan added to NPR, adding, General, when do you think I’m going to have time to do that?”

Then, his superior looked at him, “pulled his glasses down like some kind of college professor,” he said.

“There’s a big, red, top-secret folder that he got out of some safe somewhere that had my name on it. He pats this folder, looks me in the eye and says, ‘You will audit the auditors. Won’t you, Maj. Bambi?’ ” Dunagan recalled.

Donnie Dunagan served in the Marine Corps for 25 years. He recieved 3 Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, was promoted 13…

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Dunagan, in the interview, pointed out the wounds that he had received in combat.

“I have some holes in my body that God didn’t put there. I got shot through my left knee. Got an award or two for saving lives over time,” he added. “But I think I could have been appointed as the aide-de camp in the White House, it wouldn’t make any difference — it’s Bambi that’s so dear to people.”

“But I love it now — when people realize, ‘This old jerk, he’s still alive and was Bambi.’ And I wouldn’t take anything for it, not a darn thing for it.”

“Bambi” was released in 1942, produced by Walt Disney himself, and directed by David Hand. It’s based on the book, “Bambi, a Life in the Woods” by Felix Salten. It got three Oscars for Best Sound, Best Song, and Best Original Music Score.