Joe Camp, ‘Benji’ Franchise Creator, Dies at 84

The death of the beloved dog stories’ writer, director and producer was announced by his son

Benji (L) and Joe Camp attend the Los Angeles premiere of the new Netflix film Benji on March 11, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Matthew Simmons/Getty Images for Netflix)
Joe Camp at the LA premiere of the new Netflix reboot "Benji" (Getty Images)

Joe Camp — writer, producer and director of the “Benji” film and television franchise — has died at the age of 84.

Brandon Camp, son of the creator and a filmmaker in his own right, confirmed his father’s death to multiple media outlets. Joe Camp died at his home in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, surrounded by his family.

“Benji” was the stage name for the dog that starred in the stories created by Camp, comparable to Lassie and Old Yeller. The first film came out in 1974, self-distributed and produced by the creative force.

Camp also cowrote “Hawmps!” (1976), a comedy about the U.S. Cavalry enlisting camels to replace horses in the 1850s, as well as “The Double McGuffin” (1979), which centered on children trying to stymie a terrorist played by Ernest Borgnine and featured many references to Alfred Hitchcock films.

Before “Benji,” Camp’s only Hollywood experience was playing an extra in “Home From the Hill” (1960) starring Robert Mitchum. But he managed to raise $500,000 to make “Benji.” The first film follows a stray mixed-breed dog who rescues two kids from kidnappers, a la “Lassie.” Camp coaxed doc actor Higgins out of retirement, following roles in projects including “Petticoat Junction,” to play the title role.

After showing it to every studio in Hollywood and getting rejected by each one, Camp formed Mulberry Square Releasing in Dallas to independently distribute the feature film in October 1974. It grossed nearly $40 million, which translates to around $250 million today.

Higgins sadly passed away shortly after the release of “Benji,” but the character lived on to appear in followup films in 1977, 1980 with “Oh! Heavenly Dog” starring Chevy Chase as a detective reincarnated into the body of a pooch, followed by more in 1987 and 2004. Two television movies aired in 1978, while others aired in 1980 and 1981. A 1983 CBS kids series “Benji, Zax & the Alien Prince” also followed.

Joe’s son Brandon rebooted the franchise at Netflix in 2018, produced by Jason Blum and contributed to by father Joe Camp.

The filmmaker’s love for animals continued throughout his life, including writing a series of books about horses, most notably “The Soul of a Horse: Life Lessons from the Herd.” He also wrote books about dogs, as well as his Hollywood career with “Who Needs Hollywood.”

He is survived by his sons Brandon and Joe III, as well as his second wife Kathleen.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.