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It's the dream of countless American television actors to graduate to the big screen but only a select few have become major stars in feature films - George Clooney, John Travolta, and Leonardo DiCaprio, for example. Only one actor ever made the leap by coming out of retirement, wagging his tail, and flashing his canines! That's exactly what Higgins, the 14-year old (that's 98 in dog years) mutt veteran of the popular television series Petticoat Junction, did in 1974. The film was Benji, the story of a stray dog who rescues a pair of kidnapped kids and is adopted by a loving family.
Benji was director Joe Camp's first feature film, his only other experience being commercials and industrial films. A labor of love, Camp originally had the idea about an animal film shot from the perspective of the animal; he would end up writing, producing and directing the project. When met with a lack of interest by major distributors, he took on distribution and promotion duties as well, recruiting the star and his trainer into duty. The "Benjimobile" traveled to more than 60 cities nationwide, with as many as eight daily appearances to promote the film. The collective efforts paid off, as the film grossed a worldwide box office of $45 million - not bad for a first timer!
Higgins' owner, animal trainer Frank Inn, rescued the dog from a California animal shelter in the early 1960s. Part schnauzer, cocker spaniel, and poodle, the personable pup-under Inn's tutelage--quickly earned a role on Petticoat Junction. Higgins played the Bradley family pet from 1963 to 1970, displaying such tricks as sneezes, double-takes, and yawns. Inn recalls, "The dog was absolutely terrific. He learned a different trick every week for 39 weeks out of the year for seven years on Petticoat Junction." After the show ended, Higgins starred in the modest Mooch Goes to Hollywood (1971) with Vincent Price and narration provided by Zsa Zsa Gabor. Inn then put Higgins in well-earned retirement. A couple of years later, Camp showed up, looking for a canine star. Inn initially protested due to the dog's advanced age, but after seeing a couple of Higgins' tricks, Camp persuaded Inn to bring him out of retirement to star in Benji.
Inn, an apprentice of legendary trainer Rudy Weatherwax, put Higgins on an exercise regimen to prepare him for the Benji stunts; this involved running after a motorcycling Inn to build the animal's endurance. Once fit, Higgins was ready for action. The filmmakers, however, had their own trials. Camp explained, "It makes for interesting challenges when you have to come up with new ways to do things like follow a dog running thirty-five miles per hour with the camera four feet away at his eye level." Special filming support equipment had to be made to accommodate lenses to film at "dog-eye level," which was only a few inches off the ground.
Higgins' star quality was his expressive face and the ability to mimic the emotions and sentiments of his trainer. During filming Inn explained, "Benji senses the mood that I'm in, then he develops that same mood. He can be happy or sad or angry, depending on whether I'm acting happy, sad, or angry. Benji is even happy to look sad because he knows he has pleased me." The dog was able to convey action and activity in an effortless and natural way, avoiding what industry insiders call "trainer-eye", the affectation a lot of animal actors adopt by obviously watching their trainers off-screen for cues and signals. Higgins wowed the critics; Variety proclaimed, "In this case it isn't a dog performing, but a dog acting, just as humans act."
Speaking of which, the human actors in Benji were almost as versatile as the title star. Coincidentally, many of them were best known for their television work. There was even a Petticoat Junction reunion of sorts with the casting of Edgar Buchanan, who played Uncle Joe on the series. Buchanan was also known for his work in film westerns like Shane (1953), Cimarron (1960), and McLintock! (1963). Frances Bavier was immortalized as Aunt Bee Taylor from The Andy Griffith Show (1960) and Mayberry RFD (1968). Deborah Walley was best known for her turn as the perky teen in Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961). Curiously, the make-up artist for Benji was Colleen Camp, who later created the role of Sue Ellen's sister on the television soap opera Dallas (and the answer to the question, "Who shot J.R.?") in 1978.
The film's theme song, "Benji's Theme (I Feel Love)," earned an Academy Award nomination and won a Golden Globe in the same category. It was sung by Charlie Rich, "The Silver Fox" who produced back to back #1 hits in 1973 with "Behind Closed Doors" and "The Most Beautiful Girl." The success of Benji launched a succession of sequels and related projects, with the most notable being the follow-up For the Love of Benji (1977), starring Higgins' daughter Benjean in the title role. Higgins retired once and for all after Benji; upon his passing several years later, Inn kept his cremated remains in an urn at his house and requested to be buried with it upon his death. Higgins was inducted into the American Humane Association's Hall of Fame in 1975-he joined Lassie as the only other honoree.
Producer: Joe Camp, Erwin Hearne, Ed Vanston, Ben Vaughn
Director: Joe Camp
Screenplay: Joe Camp
Cinematography: Don Reddy
Film Editing: Leon Seith
Art Direction: Harlan Wright
Music: Euel Box
Cast: Patsy Garrett (Mary), Allen Fiuzat (Paul), Cynthia Smith (Cindy), Peter Breck (Dr. Chapman), Frances Bavier (Lady with cat), Terry Carter (Officer Tuttle).
by Eleanor Quin