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Joe Camp Dies: ‘Benji’ Franchise Writer, Director & Producer Was 84

Joe Camp Dies: ‘Benji’ Franchise Writer, Director & Producer Was 84

Joe Camp, who wrote, produced and directed a series of films and TV shows that elevated a pooch stage-named Benji to Hollywood’s canine pantheon alongside Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, died today at his Tennessee home. He was 84.

His death was announced by his son, the director Brandon Camp, who told Deadline that his father died after a prolonged illness at his home in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, surrounded by family.

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In addition to the long-lasting Benji franchise that began in 1974 and would continue well into the 21st Century, Camp co-wrote and directed Hawmps!, the 1976 Western comedy that replaced horses with camels, and 1979’s The Double McGuffin, a mystery film starring Ernest Borgnine and George Kennedy.

While he also wrote a series of books about horses, including the popular The Soul of a Horse and Why Horses Are Barefoot, Camp’s most enduring contribution to Hollywood was and remains the beloved and heroic mutt introduced in Camp’s independently financed 1973 family film Benji. In reality, “Benji” was played by a small golden mixed-breed dog named Higgins, who had already become familiar to the American public through years as the dog named Dog on CBS’ hit sitcom Petticoat Junction.

Owned and trained by famed animal trainer Frank Inn, Higgins died in 1975 at age 17. Subsequent Benjis have included the original’s progeny.

‘Petticoat Junction’ cast
‘Petticoat Junction’ cast

Born Joseph S. Camp Jr. on April 20, 1939 in St. Louis, Missouri, Camp initially chose a career in advertising before deciding to create a live-action dog movie (he was inspired by the Disney animated classic Lady and The Tramp). Camp would also note that even after he self-financed and shot the movie on a $500,000 budget, “it was turned down by every major studio in Hollywood for distribution.” The film, according to Camp, went on to gross $39.6 million in the United States, one of the most popular movies in 1974 and 1975.

Production began in 1976 on the sequel, For The Love Of Benji, again independently financed, with Camp as writer, director and executive producer. The film was released in 1977, the same year that Camp co-wrote, produced and co-directed a 30-minute ABC special The Phenomenon of Benji. That special was followed up the next year by another ABC special, the Emmy-nominated Benji’s Very Own Christmas Story.

Chevy Chase and Benji in ‘Oh Heavenly Dog’ (1980)
Chevy Chase and Benji in ‘Oh Heavenly Dog’ (1980)

By 1979, the franchise was strong enough to attract a major studio – 20th Century Fox – and a post-Saturday Night Live Chevy Chase, who co-starred with Benji in Oh Heavenly Dog; Camp co-wrote, produced and directed the feature, released in 1980.

Subsequent franchise installments for TV and video included, among others, Benji at Marineland, Benji The Hunted, and, in 2018, a Netflix Benji reboot film, directed by Camp’s son Brandon Camp.

Joe Camp is survived by his wife, Kathleen; sons Joe and Brandon; and stepchildren David, Dylan and Allegra.

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