September 11, 2015 | Posted in Famous TV & Movie Dogs
Many dogs have appeared in films and television shows over the years. But perhaps the most critically-praised canine for being an actual “actor” is Benji.
The original Benji’s real name was Higgins and he was rescued from a Burbank, California animal shelter by animal trainer Frank Inn, who was looking for a dog with a certain appeal and potential. He wanted to adopt from a shelter to raise awareness for homeless animals. Higgins was a mixed breed whose origin was unknown but seemed to include schnauzer, miniature poodle and perhaps border terrier.
Higgins was “shared” in ownership with Joe Camp, a film and television director. Camp said he was fairly sure Higgins also had some cocker spaniel in his blood because of the way he liked to spread out on the floor with his back legs splayed – a common spaniel trait. “There may have also been some Tibetan terrier in him, too,” Camp once said.
Higgins was born, to the best of everyone’s knowledge, in 1957. He had a successful career before becoming Benji, appearing as “Dog” in the hit television series “Petticoat Junction” in the 1960s. While he performed certain physical feats on camera, he gained popularity primarily because he showed real emotion in certain scenes.
When the series ended, Higgins was 11 and it seemed he would go into well-deserved retirement. But three years later, Joe Camp created a film titled “Benji” centered around a dog who had a knack for being in the right place at the right time to help someone in need. It was a demanding leading role but Camp knew just the “actor” to hire – Higgins.
The film shot to success in 1974 and Higgins was forever known as Benji from then on. Critics and fans marveled at how the little mixed breed dog carried the film, showing a wide range of emotions. It was often said of him that while many dogs snuck looks at their off-camera trainers during a scene and performed ably but not remarkably, Benji could remember intricate physical blocking of a scene and instead of looking at his trainer, he interacted with his human co-stars.
Alas, at the age of 15, despite his fame, Benji retired once again. His daughter, named Benjean, assumed the role of Benji in the next couple of films, including “For the Love of Benji.” The resemblance was strong and the public accepted her in the role. She was nearly as good an actor as her father but lacked quite the emotional range he’d had. Keen eyes might also have noticed she was slightly paler in color, with a softer texture of fur and a larger patch of white hair around her nose.
In all, there have four Benjis. A third (a male) enjoyed a brief career, appearing primarily on the book cover of Joe Camp’s memoir “Benji and Me.”
The fourth and current Benji was also adopted from a shelter – the Humane Society in Southern Mississippi. This Benji is also female and starred in the most recent film, “Benji: Off the Leash!” in 2004.
To date there have been six films and several television specials centered around the beloved canine character of Benji. Oprah Winfrey once commented that Benji was her favorite on-screen animal.
One touching note: the first Benji (Higgins) passed away at the ripe old age of 17. Frank Inn had him cremated and kept the ashes, with a plan in mind. In 2002, when Inn passed away, the plan was carried out. Higgins’ ashes were buried along with Inn, where they will remain together for eternity.