Hollywood Flashback: 50 Years Before ‘Arthur the King,’ Benji Saved the Day

Fifty years ago, every studio told Joe Camp — who died Friday after a long illness — he was barking up the wrong tree with Benji.

While working in advertising, the Texas-based Camp dreamed of telling a Lassie-like story from the dog’s point of view, and so he penned a script about a beloved stray pooch attempting to rescue two kidnapped children. Naming the film after his own dog, Camp secured independent financing and helmed the project himself.

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“He screened it for every single studio, and each one passed,” recalls Camp’s son, filmmaker Brandon Camp, to The Hollywood Reporter. “They all said, ‘No one is interested in this movie.’ ”

Without a distributor, Joe Camp formed Mulberry Square Productions with Ed Vanston to release the film, which starred Peter Breck, Patsy Garrett and mixed-breed canine Higgins. They managed to book Benji at a single Dallas theater in 1974, and more locations followed as word-of-mouth grew. THR reviewed it in November of that year, praising the director as “talented and sincere.”

Against the odds, Benji collected $39 million ($247 million today) to become the ninth-highest-grossing title of 1974, with signature song “I Feel Love (Benji’s Theme),” sung by Charlie Rich, earning an Oscar nom and Golden Globe win. The movie sired several sequels, including a 2018 Netflix reboot directed by Brandon Camp. Its legacy is reflected in projects such as Lionsgate’s fact-based Arthur the King, the Mark Wahlberg-led feature about a stray dog joining an adventure racing team in the Dominican Republic, which hits theaters March 15.

As for why Benji continues to resonate, Brandon Camp says, “Benji is so persistent, passionate and empathetic, and we all want some element of that in our daily existence.”

A version of this story first appeared in the March 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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