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Joe Camp, “Benji” writer and director, dies at 84

Camp released the 1974 film independently and went on to make several more "Benji" movies and TV shows.

Joe Camp, the writer and director who served as the creative force behind the Benji franchise, died Friday at his home in Bell Buckle, Tenn., following a long illness. He was 84.

His son Brandon Camp confirmed the news to EW.

Camp directed 11 films over the course of his career, including comedies like Hawmps (1976) and The Double McGuffin (1979), but he was best known for his many Benji projects. When he decided to make the original movie, he had no experience working in Hollywood. He raised around $500,000 and got Higgins, the canine performer, out of retirement to star in the movie.

Camp finished the movie but had trouble drumming up interest. "It was turned down by every studio in Hollywood," he said in a 2023 interview. "When we came back from Hollywood, I was in the dumps. I was really down low, because what are we going to do? We can throw it in the trash or figure it out."

<p>David Livingston/Getty</p> Joe Camp in 2018

David Livingston/Getty

Joe Camp in 2018

He ultimately released it himself in 1974, forming a company to distribute the film independently. "Almost a year later, it was the number three picture of the summer," he said.

More Benji movies and shows followed, as well as other films about dogs, including Oh! Heavenly Dog, which starred Chevy Chase as a detective reincarnated as a dog. Camp won an Emmy for Outstanding Children's Program in 1980 for Benji at Work. He also contributed to Netflix's 2018 Benji reboot, which was directed by his son Brandon.

Camp said the inspiration for the original Benji came when he and his first wife were watching a program that showed clips from various animal shows. Clips from Disney's Lady and the Tramp sparked a conversation.

"I was asking [my wife], when we went in the kitchen to do the dishes, 'Do you think it'd be possible to do that kind of a movie with a real dog?' We talked about it for a while and finally came to the conclusion that it wouldn't be possible because, how do you tell a story without words?" he recalled. "She went to bed, and I stayed up to read. Our little Yorkshire terrier, whose name was Benji, he stayed up with me. I got intrigued watching his expression on things."

He continued, "I got down on the floor and got in the corner and was all huddled up, acting afraid. The dog's looking at me like, 'Have you lost your mind?' You could read that in his face. So I went to bed knowing that dogs do talk." The next morning, Camp wrote the complete treatment for Benji.

One estimate from the Hollywood Reporter puts the total gross of Camp's films at $600 million, adjusted for inflation, making him a hugely successful independent filmmaker. Camp was also a horseman and author of many Benji-related books, as well as The Soul of a Horse: Life Lessons from the Herd.

Beyond entertainment, Camp served as a donor and board member for charities, rescue organizations, and schools, including the Piney Woods School in Mississippi.

Camp is survived by his wife, Kathleen; two sons, Joe and Brandon; and stepchildren David, Dylan, and Allegra.

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