by Joe Camp
As we began planning the fifth Benji movie, Benji Off the Leash, we found ourselves wondering where to begin because we were seemingly all the way back to square one. Several years had elapsed since the production and release of Benji the Hunted. Carolyn, my wife of 38 years, had died suddenly leaving me in a deep depression for about a year and a half of that time. Frank Inn, who in my opinion was the most incredible animal trainer that ever lived, had also passed away, as had Benjis # 1 & 2 who had starred in the first four films. And ultimately I had met, courted and married my second wonderful, bright, loving and compassionate wife Kathleen. God is good.
But we still didn’t know where to begin with this new movie. Kathleen and I discussed at length.
The original Benji had been rescued by Frank from the Burbank Animal Shelter and our promotion of that little bit of trivia as we promoted that first movie wound up causing more than one million adoptions around the country according to the American Humane Association.
“We should do that again,” Kathleen said. “We should adopt the next Benji from a shelter.”
It was a fantastic idea!
“We could do it all over again. Put a face on the reason to adopt,” I said.
“A face with big brown lovable eyes,” Kathleen added.
My adrenaline was rising. Heart beating faster.
“Could the entire movie be about adoption of homeless pets?” I wondered aloud.
“And the evils of backyard puppy mills?” Kathleen added.
Which, in fact, is exactly what the new movie is all about… and is how we wound up on a national search in shelters all across the country for the new Benji. An effort that took three and half months and very nearly broke the bank. But the results were well worth it. The media jumped on board and wherever we went cameras and reporters were following us through every shelter in town looking for the new Benji and listening to me run on about how much I wanted whoever looks into the big brown eyes of our ultimate choice to be seeing the kind of unconditional love they can find at their own local shelter (see the video: The Search for Benji in Shelters).
We began in Chicago and went to Minneapolis, St. Paul, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Dallas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and a whole bunch of smaller towns in between. The publicity that followed us caused shelters everywhere to get involved and we received thousands of photos. But finding the right Benji was not just about finding a dog who looked like the original. The temperament had to be there – there are dogs everywhere who would be crazed going through the rigors of a movie production schedule (we have two ourselves :). Dogs, not unlike people, are all different. Some love to work and some love to play. Some are smart, some not so much. Some can capture your heart in a heartbeat. Some take a little longer.
And because the Benji character is a very independent dog, the new Benji had to have an attitude. A serious attitude of complete independence because you cannot fake that on a movie screen. An attitude that is not begging for a treat every time she’s asked to do something. An attitude that basically reeks of Okay I’ll do this but I’ll do it when I’m good and ready so don’t bug me about it.
The search ultimately – finally – lead to the adoption of three dogs, one from a shelter in southern Mississippi, one from a shelter in Los Angeles, and one from a shelter in Chicago.
But everywhere we went, the publicity that followed always lead to a rise in adoption levels. Local and network television, radio and newspapers covered the search, as did ABC’s Primetime Thursday and Good Morning America, cumulatively generating more than one billion media exposures for the efforts of shelters and rescue groups all across the nation.
After two weeks of “Benji Boot Camp,” the pup adopted from Gulfport, Mississippi won the starring role. The dog adopted in Chicago (Lizard Tongue) became the comic relief in the new movie; and the dog adopted from the Los Angeles shelter became an understudy. The new Benji’s home shelter in Gulfport, Mississippi, had the largest month in their history the month after Benji was adopted and, in fact, completely emptied the shelter.
Benji and Lizard Tongue live with us, and the Los Angeles adoptee lives with the film’s other producer, Margaret Loesch.
Since her adoption, Benji has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for shelters and adoption groups all across the country by participating in benefit galas and benefit screenings of Benji Off the Leash, and Benji and I traveled the country doing benefits and fund raisers when time permited. This work for homeless animals is the number one reason Oprah has and Steven Spielberg have chosen Benji as their Favorite Onscreen Animal.
See the video about the nationwide Search for Benji.
See the 3-minute video: Benji Movie Memories. Clips from five Benji movies, starring all three Benjis. See if you can tell which one is which 🙂