Joe Camp, Writer and Director of the ‘Benji’ Movies, Dies at 84

Joe Camp, the writer, director and producer who taught that old dog Hollywood new tricks about animal movies as the creative force behind the 1974 franchise-spawning Benji, has died. He was 84.

Camp died Friday morning at his home in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, following a long illness, his son, filmmaker Brandon Camp, told The Hollywood Reporter.

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Camp also directed and co-wrote the comedies Hawmps! (1976), about the U.S. Cavalry replacing horses with camels in the 1850s, and The Double McGuffin (1979), which revolved around kids trying to thwart a terrorist (Ernest Borgnine) and featured lots of in-jokes about Hitchcock movies.

Other than serving as an extra on the Robert Mitchum-starring Home From the Hill (1960), Camp had no Hollywood experience when he raised about $500,000 to make Benji, a story about a stray mixed breed — not a fancy pure breed like Lassie! — who helps rescue two youngsters from kidnappers.

Crucial to the movie’s success, he managed to get Higgins, who had appeared for years hanging around the Shady Rest Hotel on the CBS comedy Petticoat Junction, to come out of retirement to play the title character.

Camp completed his film, then showed it to every studio in Hollywood, and every single one wanted nothing to do with it. “I was really in the dumps, I was down low,” he recalled in a 2023 interview. “What are we going to do? We can throw it in the trash, or we can figure it out.”

He formed Dallas-based Mulberry Square Releasing to distribute the feature independently in October 1974, and it wound up grossing nearly $40 million ($250 million in today’s dollars), delighting audiences well into the next summer.

BENJI, from left: Benji, writer/director Joe Camp, 1974
Joe Camp with Higgins, star of 1974’s Benji

Benji was followed by movies featuring the scruffy dog in 1977, 1980 — counting Oh! Heavenly Dog, starring Chevy Chase as a detective reincarnated as a pooch — 1987 and 2004; two telefilms that aired in 1978 and others that aired in 1980 and 1981; and the 1983 CBS kids series Benji, Zax & the Alien Prince. (Most of the time, Benji was played by Higgins’ daughter, Benjean.)

By one estimation, the films have grossed about $600 million if adjusted for inflation, making Camp one of the most successful indie filmmakers of all time.

He then contributed to the 2018 Benji reboot at Netflix that was directed by his son Brandon Camp and produced by Jason Blum.

Joseph Shelton Camp Jr. was born in St. Louis on April 20, 1939. His dad’s job took him and his family to live in places including Little Rock, Arkansas; El Segundo; Jackson, Mississippi; and Memphis, Tennessee, where he and his friends made movies while attending East High School.

At the University of Mississippi, Camp got to be an extra when MGM came to Oxford to film parts of Home From the Hill, directed by Vincente Minnelli. However, his scenes — all with Yvette Mimieux — were cut. She’s not in the movie, either.

Camp wanted to transfer to UCLA film school after his sophomore year but was rejected, so he finished up at Mississippi, graduating in 1961 with a degree in advertising and marketing. He then took a job with McCann Erickson, first in Houston and then Dallas.

When Camp and his first wife, Carolyn, saw a clip from the animated Disney classic Lady and the Tramp (1955) on TV, he asked her, “Do you think it would be possible to do that kind of a movie with a real dog? We came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t be possible, because how to you tell a story without words?”

But after she retired for the night, Camp stayed up with Benji, their Yorkshire terrier, and “got intrigued with watching his expressions on things … I got down on the floor in a corner all huddled up and acted afraid, and the dog’s looking at me like, ‘Have you lost your mind?’ You could read that in his face. I went to bed knowing dogs do talk.”

The next morning, Camp wrote the entire treatment for Benji and said it made his wife cry when he read it to her. “We got it by depicting what the animal was feeling, not what the animal was doing,” he explained.

Camp then discovered that one of his college classmates, Tom Lester, was starring on CBS’ Green Acres, and the actor helped him find contacts in Hollywood.

Benji’s theme, “I Feel Love,” recorded by Charlie Rich, received an Academy Award nomination for best original song but lost out on Oscar night to “We May Never Love Like This Again,” sung by Maureen McGovern for The Towering Inferno.

Higgins also was nominated — for a PATSY Award for best animal performance of the year in a feature. Alas, he lost as well, to the cat from Harry and Tonto.

Camp did win an Emmy for outstanding children’s program for Benji at Work. He also wrote several Benji-related books and other books about horses, including the well-regarded The Soul of a Horse: Life Lessons From the Herd, first published in 2008.

Survivors also include his second wife, Kathleen, an attorney, photographer and teacher (they married in 2001); son Joe Camp III, an assistant director; and step-children David, Dylan and Allegra. He was married to Carolyn from 1960 until her death from a heart disorder in 1997 at age 58.

Ryan Gajewski contributed to this report.

BENJI THE HUNTED, Benji, director Joe Camp, on-set, 1987
Joe Camp with Benjean on the set of 1987’s Benji the Hunted

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