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When I learned there was a new Benji movie coming out, and that its creator, Joe Camp, is the same filmmaker who made the three original Benji movies back in the 1970s and 1980s, I just had to find him and thank him. I grew up adoring that scruffy, heroic pooch who helped solve crimes and always managed to ditch the secret agents and evil spies pursuing him. Like so many kid moviegoers, I regarded Benji as a personal friend. Even more, I loved knowing that in real life, the original Benji (who first appeared to audiences as the dog on the 1960s sitcom Petticoat Junction) was found in a shelter, just like Ralph, my own family mutt at the time. It was a kind of validation for me, for Ralph, and for all the dogs I would go on to own, all of them lovingly plucked from animal shelters. I'm hardly alone. According to the American Humane Association, those early Benji movies dramatically boosted pet adoptions from shelters across the country.
The new Benji, star of Benji Returns: Rags to Riches, is believed to be part Lhasa apso and part shih tzu, and about 3 years old. She was found on the streets of Pass Christian, Mississippi, where she was picked up by animal control and taken to the Humane Society. That's where Camp, 65, found her while holding a nationwide search for the star of his new movie. He had not made a film since the 1980s, when his wife and production partner, Carolyn, suffered severe health problems; she died in 1997. In 2001, newly remarried and determined to pick up where he left off, Camp decided that it was time to bring Benji back to the big screen.
I caught up with Camp at his home in Valley Center, California, where he lives with wife Kathleen, three stepchildren and a menagerie of pets, including five dogs, three cats, and a pair of goats. His two newest pooches are Benji, whom Camp adopted as his own, and Shaggy, an endearing mutt he found in a Chicago shelter. Shaggy was supposed to be Benji's understudy, but so charmed the filmmaker that he earned a supporting role in the movie as Benji's even scruffier sidekick.
Q. What is Benji really like offscreen?
A. Well, at home here she's just one of the pets. I won't say she's a diva, but she does get a little bit jealous of the others and likes attention. So when it's time to pack her up and head out to promote the movie, she really gets a kick out of it because she loves the one-on-one time with me. She's just so bright and so very intuitive. Shaggy, on the other hand, is such a doofus that he'll start scratching his ear, forget he's doing it, and growl at his own foot. He's a nutcase, but everybody loves him. He's the one in the movie who'll have you laughing. Benji's the one you'll still have a plush toy of on your bed 30 years from now.
Q. What qualities were you looking for in the new Benji?
A. The eyes are what Benji is all about. When she looks at you with those big brown eyes, it's got to hurt. The next thing is attitude and demeanor. There are dogs, and we have a couple, who are just wag-tail and panting -- you know, "Throw me a ball, pet me on the head, and I'll be happy for life!"
But Benji has to be independent, not fawning. She's got to be secure in herself because so much of what Benji does isn't tricks and stuff like that, but projecting emotions. There's no voice-over, no special effects with talking mouths, and none of the silly stuff Hollywood does with animal movies.
Q. How did you know you'd found the right dog?
A. We looked at hundreds, if not thousands of dogs. We were in every shelter in Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Phoenix, and Dallas. I was in Mississippi looking at one dog I'd heard about when the shelter director walked in with Benji and said, "What do you think of this one? She came here two days ago." He put her on the floor, shut the door, left the room, and after 10 minutes I said, "That's it, we're done." I just thought, Why would somebody abandon this dog? She's so wonderful!
The story of homeless animals is an important one, and it's one of our missions this time. I've always been emotional about the subject. I decided to start an ongoing program where shelters would designate homeless animals as Benji's Buddies, so that when somebody thinks about getting a pet, they'll think about going to a shelter instead of the pet store or a backyard breeder. [Benji's Buddies is a nonprofit group that helps shelters raise money for better facilities and to boost adoption rates by branding all adoptable shelter pets as Benji's Buddies. Camp has donated use of the Benji trademark and copyrights, and the use of Benji herself, to promote the program.]
Q. So how are Benji and Shaggy enjoying the good life in sunny California?
A. We live right in the middle of an avocado valley, and there are trees hanging over our fences. Shaggy loves to go down there and root around for snacks, so he's now about eight pounds over his movie weight. He's on a strict diet, but he's still fat as a pig.
Benji likes the avocados, too, but in a different way. I came out of the editing room one night, and she was lying on the gravel driveway, which she never does. I walked over to her, and she gave me a little growl. I got closer and saw she had an avocado between her front paws -- not eating it, just protecting it, the way she does with our hamsters and the mice our cats catch. I think she went too long without being spayed or something. There's a mama streak going on in Benji. She is one special dog.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, June 2004.