Benji, Shelter Dog Turned Movie Star
The lovable mixed-breed dog that was to become Benji was discovered in 1960 by veteran Hollywood animal trainer Frank Inn (1916-2002). Inn always looked first at shelters for the animals he needed for various show requests, and the Burbank Animal Shelter was where he met and fell in love with the shaggy brown dog, known as Higgins, that was to be his biggest star.
Who Was Frank Inn?
Inn was born to a Quaker family in Camby, Indiana, and his original name was Elias Franklin Freeman. He left home at age 17, intent on making a name for himself in Hollywood. Two years later he was seriously injured in a car accident and was convalescing at a friend’s house at a time when the family dog had just had a litter of pups. Frank discovered he had a knack for working with animals. His ability soon landed him a job with Rudd Weatherwax, who trained Lassie and Rin-Tin-Tin.
After 14 years working for Weatherwax, Inn went into business for himself and moved his family to an isolated area in the San Fernando Valley to accommodate his growing menagerie of more than 100 dogs, cats and exotic animals. A few years after going on his own, Frank Inn acquired Higgins.
Higgins, who eventually starred as Benji, was originally seen on television as the nameless dog in Petticoat Junction. Inn noted that Higgins successfully mastered a new trick each week for the television show, and his looks and ability made him a natural for a bigger role.
Benji, the Movie
When the movie, Benji, was being cast, there were few signs that it would be a big success. The idea for the film came from Joe Camp, a fellow who made his living producing commercials in Dallas. Camp wrote the script, and began contacting people in Hollywood, only to receive rejection after rejection.
Camp was not going to be discouraged; he still loved his “dog picture” idea. In 1971 Camp and a partner decided to produce the movie independently and then try to get a distribution deal. That, too, proved to be an unreachable goal; Camp and his partner formed their own distribution company and released the picture themselves from their offices in Dallas. Camp personally developed the marketing strategy, wrote the advertising copy and press releases, and supervised each and every booking worldwide.
In spite of the many obstacles to getting the film made, the audiences loved Benji. Variety reported the picture was the #3 grossing movie of the year.
Success Equals Sequel
The success of the movie led to a sequel, but by this time Higgins, who was 14 at the time the original movie was filmed, was now too old for a full-time commitment. Higgins’s daughter, Benjean, played Benji in For the Love of Benji (1977). When the time came for a third Benji, another of Higgins’s offspring filled in.
In 2002 Joe Camp was contemplating another Benji feature film; Frank Inn had just passed away, so Camp decided the thing to do was to undertake a nationwide shelter search for a new Benji. The publicity would be good for the brand, and in the 1970s the American Humane Society attributed a million additional adoptions to the news that the original Benji had come from a shelter. Camp thought this was a great opportunity to draw attention to the millions of abandoned dogs in shelters nationwide.
Joe Camp and his company undertook a nationwide search, looking at animals from Los Angeles and Detroit to points east and south. The field was narrowed to three candidates that were then put through a “Benji boot camp” run by Camp’s wife. Ultimately, the new Benji was a dog from a shelter in Gulfport, Mississippi. The runners-up were taken care of, too. One was placed with a family, and the other was cast as Benji’s sidekick in the film, Benji Off the Leash.
This leads us to Benji’s message. If you or someone you know are thinking of adopting a new pet, think of Frank Inn, Joe Camp, and Benji and check with your local shelters.
If you are hoping for a specific breed, contact the rescue organizations for that breed. (Two of our Dog Days readers run rescue organizations in their area–one for dachshunds and the other for Dobermans.) You’ll meet kind and caring people who are interested in making the right match between pet and owner.