The sweet little terrier that starred in the hit movie Benji was adopted from the Burbank Animal Shelter by dog trainer Frank Inn. Higgins became one of the best on-screen dog actors. Frank Inn describes Higgins as the smartest dog that he’s had experience training, and as a dog with an amazing capacity to learn new and complex tricks. Not only did Higgins learn a new trick or routine each week, he would also retain skills that allowed Frank to combine and incorporate complicated tasks.
Some of his tricks included climbing ladders, opening containers of food, and performing extended routines for long-uncut shoots. Higgins was also known for his ability to interact with the cast on a seemingly personal level and not focus on the off-screen trainer. While it is common for dog actors to direct their attention to the trainer giving signals, Higgins focused on his supporting cast. Often, he was able to improvise with fellow actors. One quality Higgins had was his ability to show emotion and thought in his facial expressions. His eyes could evoke a sense of fear, love, sadness, and thoughtfulness.
The Higgins and Frank Inn Team
Before his role in the 1974 feature film Benji, Higgins and Frank Inn had been working together for over a decade. For six seasons Higgins appeared as “Dog” in sitcom Petticoat Junction. Higgins was brought out of retirement for his role in Benji. He died the following year, but not before siring a female version of himself, Benjean. She was the second dog to appear as Benji.
There have been four different dogs that played Benji. Joe Camp, the creator of the Benji storyline, says that while there have been several dogs play the role of Benji, it is an on-going character that continues with a tradition of hope, love, compassion, and persistence. Camp was not discouraged by the negative feedback from industry professionals on the marketability of the Benji storyline. He wrote, directed, produced, and found private financing for Benji. Even during post-production he faced opposition. All the major film distributors weren’t interested in Benji. Camp’s solution was to form a new distribution company with his partner Ed Vanston.
Widespread Love for Benji
The success and love of the Benji storyline is clearly due to the talent and persistence of Higgins and Frank Inn. Frank felt a love and gratitude for Higgins that he expressed in his poems about him, including “My Little Brown Dog.” After Higgins’ death, Frank Inn had him cremated and kept his ashes in an urn in his home. Frank planned to keep the ashes even after his own death and requested that Higgins’ ashes be buried in his coffin with him.