Brandon Camp, whose father created the "Benji" dog movies nearly 40 years ago, and veteran movie animal trainer Mark Forbes are searching for a new Benji.
LOS ANGELES — Have you seen this dog?
It’s a mutt — mischievous, medium-sized, scruffy and street-smart with soulful eyes. Comfortable as hero or underdog, yet likely to be a stray. Must be a fast learner, able to charm millions and willing to work for food.
Brandon Camp, whose father created “Benji” nearly 40 years ago, and veteran movie trainer Mark Forbes have set out to find a new Benji in a nationwide search that includes online tools and sites that weren’t around when the first four Benjis were discovered.
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A Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/benjithemovie) has been set up so pet owners and shelter staffs can post pictures and videos of dogs they think could be the next Benji.
Camp and Forbes will scour photos of pets from shelters and rescues across the country, along with sites like petfinder.com and adoptapet.com. Forbes said he was personally visiting every shelter within 75 miles of Los Angeles, where he is general manager and head trainer at Birds and Animals Unlimited.
The original 1974 movie “Benji” is about a stray who helps save two kidnapped children. It was written, produced, directed and financed by Camp’s father, Joe Camp. When he couldn’t find a distributor, he and his wife, the late Carolyn Camp, decided to do it themselves.
There would be four sequels, several TV specials, a Saturday morning TV series, a syndicated comic strip and all kinds of merchandising deals. More than 73 million people would see “Benji” at theaters and more than a billion people around the world watched it on television. Millions of DVDs would be sold.
The original Benji was Higgins, adopted in the early 1960s from the Burbank Animal Shelter by late animal trainer Frank Inn. Higgins played Dog in the television series “Petticoat Junction” for several years. At the age of 14, he became Benji.
The second Benji was Higgins’ daughter, the third was a distant relative and the fourth was adopted from the Humane Society of South Mississippi.
“I only have snapshot memories of the original,” said Brandon Camp, who was just 3 years old when “Benji” came out. “The second Benji is the one I grew up with and traveled with and knew and loved.”
The dog was so much a part of his life, he was nicknamed Benji at school. The two of them were constantly on the go — from White House Easter egg hunts to morning shows, late shows and show-and-tells. “I missed most of my first grade because I was traveling around with Benji,” said Camp, who directed “Love Happens.”
When he was 6 or 7, Camp went to New York so Benji could ride a float in the Macy’s parade, where thousands of people were trying to get close to see him. “It was the first time I realized what kind of star he was,” he remembers.
Camp said the new movie will stay true to the heart of the original Benji. “Parents and grandparents will recognize the spirit of Benji,” he said. “He was always a mutt and will always be a mutt. He is the everydog.”
But can a sequel be as good as the original? Besides millions of Benji fans making comparisons, Camp is aware his father, who now lives in Tennessee, will be watching, too.
“The irony is he doesn’t have to say a thing. I hear his voice constantly in my head. If I screw this up, I have to look him in the eye,” he said.
Dad doesn’t seem concerned. “His script is fantastic and I have no doubt that he will discover and be directing the best ‘Benji’ ever,” Joe Camp said.
A Benji movie nearly four decades after the original has two main things going for it, said David Brokaw, a veteran Los Angeles publicist, personal manager and dog lover. First, the fans will span those decades, from kids to grandparents. Secondly, it’s about a dog. “I don’t think there’s anything bigger right now,” Brokaw said.
Camp says he will know instantly when he looks into the right dog’s eyes. Forbes said he’ll need to spend a little time with the dog to judge its temperament.
Forbes is used to animals. He’s done “101 Dalmatians,” “Dr. Doolittle,” “Marley and Me,” “We Bought a Zoo,” “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” “Evan Almighty” and “Zookeeper.”
There will be backup Benjis, but no stunt doubles, the men said. The actors haven’t been cast for the movie yet, but Walden Media (“The Chronicles of Narnia” series) is producing the film.
Forbes has watched the original “Benji” four or five times. He’s looking for a dog that can perform a sad scene so that the viewer cries. The dog must be athletic, fearless, outgoing and happy to please with goofy traits.
When Forbes finds a movie dog at a shelter, he makes sure the dog has a home when fame fades. One of the dogs in his own backyard is Cole, who was also known as “The Shaggy Dog” with Tim Allen in 2006.
Camp and Forbes also hope happy endings extend beyond their own backyards. When a dog stars in a movie, there is usually a rush to own a similar dog, Camp said. He’s hoping for a run on mutts.