What happens to a childhood actor once they no longer act? The first order is to grow up. And who do they grow up into? Let me tell you a true story.
The boy was affectionately called Donnie by his friends when he was five years old. Now, when the names of a little boy’s friends just happen to be Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone the wheels start to turn. Just who is Donnie Dunagan? You might well ask this question. The easy answer, there is no easy answer; he has been many things to many people. Let me begin from the beginning.
Donald Dunagan was born on August 16, 1934 to parents who didn’t have much more to give their son than love. As Donnie says, “They were dirt poor.” But Donnie’s destiny was not to remain the poor boy from the poor side of town. At the age of two and a half Donnie’s family moved from San Antonio, Texas to Memphis, Tennessee. There his father worked on a golf course as an assistant to the assistant golf instructor. He worked long hours helping men try to recapture their youth at the age of forty to fifty when they picked up and swung a club for the first time in their lives. It didn’t pay much but it kept the family afloat.
They didn’t know it but 1937 was the year things would change. At the local theater in downtown Memphis a talent contest was announced. With a top prize of $100 everyone who had talent up to the age of thirteen planned to be a contestant. Donnie had been taught to dance and the little tyke had plenty of talent as far as the family and neighbors were concerned. He was promptly entered. The Orpheum Theater was about to be surprised and so was Donnie.
Wearing hand-me-down shoes from a richer neighbor, sporting a paper hat made to look like a top hat and carrying a whittled stick that looked from a distance like that of an English walking stick, Donnie took his first few strides onto the Orpheum stage thinking he was in the wrong place. The dancer before him was so much better, how could he possibly compete. The outcome was a fairytale come true. Donnie danced and the audience lost their hearts. He won that first place prize but he won something else so much more. For seated in the audience was a Hollywood talent scout.
In mere weeks Donnie found himself on a sound stage. His first film was released in 1938. Mother Carey’s Children gave young Donnie a new look at life. Gone were the days of not having enough. He was making money and helping his family. One might think that a boy of his tender years might not understand, but Donnie did.
His next picture would cement him years later in the movie buff’s who’s who. 1939 was a magical year for Hollywood and for Donnie Dunagan. Son of Frankenstein boasted an incomparable cast for Universal. The names Karloff, Lugosi and Rathbone fairly jumped out at you. Such talent, such thrills, such horror, those thoughts hit the audience watching the trailers. Was Donnie afraid of Karloff’s monster? Did he fear Lugosi? Did he view Rathbone favorably?
Now five years old and a veteran of one movie, little Donnie understood the dynamics of an actor’s life. His mother would drop him off at the studio and a nanny took over his care. Only the nanny always disappeared. So Donnie picked out his own nanny. Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone became his friends but they probably would balk at the term nanny being applied to them. The reality was that they helped each other.
The boy had an amazing ability for memorization. Not only did he know his own lines but he memorized and coached his fellow actors on their lines. He became an integral cog. Even as lines were changed, added and taken out, little Donnie kept up. In return for Donnie’s line coaching Karloff taught him to play checkers and to his incredulity little Donnie won on is own when Karloff didn’t give the game his full attention. Rathbone read him classical poetry and attempted to teach the lad chess. That game proved too much but the memory of those tutored lessons has lasted a lifetime.
His other co-stars left lasting impressions for other reasons. His mother in Son of Frankenstein, Josephine Hutchenson left the sound stage after takes leaving her co-stars to their own devises and that is what little Donnie remembers most of her. The same can be said of Lugosi. Donnie didn’t like Lionel Atwill. In fact, Donnie stayed away from the man who played a policeman in favor of the man who played the monster.
Donnie’s memories of making pictures have remained vivid throughout the years showing a strong and perceptive mind. He would make five more films for a total of seven with Son of Frankenstein and Bambi being his most memorable.
With the latter he was hired by Walt Disney to be the facial model of the young deer but in time they discovered his remarkable memory and he became the voice of the fawn as well. With those two films his name will continue to be memorialized.
Getting back to the earlier question of what happens to childhood actors, Donnie grew up into a man the whole nation could be proud of. In December of 1952 at the age of eighteen Donnie received a message from the draft board. Answering the call he went in for his physical. Standing in line with the others he was singled out by a combat gunnery sergeant who realized in the young man’s form the build of a football player. After a thirty-five minute talk Donnie was a Marine.
He rose quickly in rank almost from the first day. Responsibility was handed to him and Donnie followed through. He was sent to boot camp in charge of thirty to forty men. While still only a private first class he was made a drill instructor, becoming the youngest in Marine history.
In the final days of the Korean War Donnie was ship bound. Before they could get there the war ended and his ship turned around. It was a hardship to be in Hawaii with all the pretty girls. While he might have averted combat then, he didn’t escape Vietnam.
Vietnam painted a tattoo across his body. His injuries were never easy or superficial. He got it in the head, the lung and the leg among other places. Consequently he over heard last rites being said over him three times and three times he was medivaced out. His head has a plate in it, he didn’t lose his leg as initially thought and at eighty he’s still breathing and walking around with enough spunk to be dangerous. After all, Donnie was the champion heavy weight boxer for nine years in the Marines. Add to that, the fact that he served as a counterintelligence agent during the Cold War and you really don’t want to mess with Peter Von Frankenstein. Like his fictional father and grandfather – Donnie Dunagan know how to take a body apart.
So who exactly is Donnie Dunagan? He is –
- A childhood Hollywood actor,
- A 25 year career Marine wounded in combat numerable times who also served as a counterintelligence agent and retired as a major,
- A champion boxer who still coaches the sport today,
- A mathematician,
- Physicist and an
- American Mensa Society member
This multiple Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient is quite the man. Acting gave Donnie the skills he would later need to survive as the man of action he remains.
To meet this fascinating man in person, Chicago area residents haven’t far to go. This month the gates of Hollywood’s golden age are opening up. On October 30, 2014 Donnie Dunagan will be at the Pickwick Theater in historic downtown Park Ridge Illinois to personally invite guests to participate in the 75th Anniversary showing of the movie that really introduced Donnie Dunagan to the world, Son of Frankenstein!
For more information please visit Park Ridge Classic Film.
The 75th Anniversary showing of Son of Frankenstein
With special guest Donnie Dunagan
October 30, 2014
The Pickwick Theater
5 S. Prospect Ave. Park Ridge, ILL
Regular – $7
Seniors – $5
Don’t forget to bring the kids and your cameras. There will be a costume contest for children twelve and under with prizes.
A List of His Films:
Earth vs. the Sci~ Fi Filmmakers: Twenty Interviews
By Tom Weaver
Donnie Dunagan, Pgs 86 ~113