b. 12 December 1957
d. 11 November 1975
d. 11 November 1975
At one point in the 1987 film Benji the Hunted, a man shoots a cougar. I was four when I saw this, and this scene caused me to run screaming into the lobby: it remains one of the more traumatic film-going experiences of my life. I didn’t revisit the Benji franchise until adulthood.
Director Joe Camp has made a career of churning out films about Benji, a little dog who solves problems. Like Star Wars, the first three are the only ones you really need to bother about: Benji the Hunted (1987); For the Love of Benji (1977) and the first one, Benji (1974), starring Higgins in the title role. Joe Camp, as made clear by his website, is a Christian, family-values-y type filmmaker, keen on ‘cleaning up’ children’s entertainment. Nevertheless, my four-year-old experience rings true to my adult reception of the film – while the films are charming and wholesome, they’re also really, really distressing. In Benji, our hero lives in an abandoned house, which later becomes a hideout for some bumbling thugs who have kidnapped two children. Just to let you know that these are really bad guys, at one point one of them kicks Benji’s little dog girlfriend across the room, breaking her leg. It’s a moment of surprising violence that’s typical of the world of the Benji films, a comforting, friendly place in which there is some dark and disturbing shit lurking.
But anyway, Higgins. He gives an amazing performance in this film, part of the credit for which must go to his incredible trainer, Frank Inn. Inn found Higgins in a Berkeley animal shelter when he was a puppy (Higgins, not Inn), and the two had a very close working relationship. Higgins rose to fame as Dog in the TV series Petticoat Junction, which he appeared on regularly from 1964 to 1970. He also had appearances on Greenacres and The Beverly Hillbillies. Inn coached Higgins in a range of tricks, many of them complex: the dog could climb ladders; open boxes and pudding cups; sneeze, yawn, salute and cover his eyes with his eyes with his paws on command. This lovely post at luckymojo.com praises his lack of “trainer eye” – he never appears to be looking offscreen for cues from Inn. However, it is his range of facial expressions which really set Higgins apart as an actor. The promotional material for Benji states he has “the most expressive face in dogdom”, and it’s not a shallow boast. His performance is far more impressive than those of many of his human co-stars.
After his TV roles, Higgins had been ‘retired’ from showbusiness, but was brought out in his old age to star as Benji. He was 16 when the film was released, and died a year later. His daughter, Benjean, took over the role in subsequent Benji films, and her appearance in For the Love of Benji also shows some impressive canine acting chops. Joe Camp is still making Benji movies, and doing good work in encouraging adopting animals from shelters, but I have to say, the dogs he has playing Benji these days are nowhere near as appealing looking as Higgins. Camp’s children are also involved in the film industry – one son wrote and directed the Jennifer Aniston vehicle Love Happens (2009), and another has been a first assistant director on many, many films, from Barton Fink (1991) to Brothers (2009).
Frank Inn died in 2002. In his later life, he wrote several poems about Higgins, which are terrible, but in terms of the subject matter, also very touching. When he died, Higgins’ ashes were interred with him.
We all know that Polish film posters are awesome, yes? Here's the one for Benji. it's like he's sweating lovehearts!
I've written about Benji elsewhere online, at werewolf.co.nz