Joe Camp, Filmmaker Behind ‘Benji’ Franchise, Dies at 84


Joe Camp, a pioneering filmmaker who created the groundbreaking “Benji” franchise, which brought a lovable dog in a live-action film to the masses and became a smash success, died on Friday at his home in Bell Buckle, Tenn. He was 84.

The cause was an unspecified illness, his son, the director Brandon Camp, said in a statement.

Joe Camp began thinking about directing as early as 8 years old, but he would first encounter decades of rejections. While attending the University of Mississippi, he tried to transfer to U.C.L.A.’s film school, only to be turned down. After college, Mr. Camp dabbled in advertising at the Houston office of McCann Erickson and then at Norsworthy‐Mercer, an agency in Dallas, while writing unproduced sitcom scripts on the side.

In 1971, Mr. Camp and James Nicodenius, a cinematographer, formed their own production company, Mulberry Square Productions, which was based in Dallas, far from the traditional hubs of the television and film industry, Los Angeles and New York.

The idea for “Benji” came from watching the Disney animated film “Lady and the Tramp” in the late-1960s with his first wife, Carolyn (Hopkins) Camp. Afterward, Mr. Camp observed his own dog’s facial expressions and wondered if a movie could be made starring one in real life told from the dog’s perspective.

“I went to sleep with the distinct concept that dogs do talk if you’re really paying attention,” Mr. Camp told The Associated Press in 2003.

With little professional experience, Mr. Camp feverishly came up with a script in one sitting — his first feature length film — in which an adorable stray dog would save two children from a kidnapping. He raised $500,000 and shot the film in 12 weeks in 1973.

At first, he had trouble finding a dog trainer who would work on the film, before the celebrated trainer Frank Inn agreed to take part. But then no Hollywood studios were interested in distributing it. So Mr. Camp did it independently through his production company.

“Getting that first ‘Benji’ movie made was like careening through a minefield of slammed doors, unplanned disasters, catastrophic mistakes, and a noticeable vacuum of money, knowledge and experience,” Mr. Camp wrote on his website.

”Benji” premiered in 1974. It would go on to gross around $40 million — roughly $250 million in today’s dollars — and shattered perceptions about how to make successful films. It was one of the top money makers of the year, along with “Jaws” and “The Towering Inferno.”

Mr. Camp went on to make several other “Benji” films, including 1977’s “For the Love of Benji”; 1980’s Oh Heavenly Dog, which starred Chevy Chase and Jane Seymour; 1987’s “Benji the Hunted” and 2004’s “Benji: Off the Leash!” There was also a CBS children’s show in 1983, “Benji, Zax & the Alien Prince.”

“By doing it well enough, the dollars will take care of themselves,” Mr. Camp told The New York Times in 1975.

“Benji” was rebooted as a 2018 film for Netflix and was co-written by Mr. Camp and his son, Brandon, who also directed the film.

Mr. Camp, inspired by Walt Disney’s vision, insisted on creative control over his films and that there be no profanity of any sort. He recalled that during negotiations with studios for distributing “Benji Off the Leash,” an executive from one of the studios made the case that sexual innuendos and smut were something children increasingly wanted in their programming.

“I said to him, ‘Do you have kids?’ ” Mr. Camp recalled to The Telegram & Gazette in 2004.

After the executive said yes, Mr. Camp responded: “‘Do you give them what they want or what you think they ought to have?’ And that pretty well ended the conversation.”

Joseph Shelton Camp Jr. was born April 20, 1939, in St. Louis. His father, Joseph Shelton Camp, was an insurance executive, and mother, Ruth Wilhelmina Mclaulin, a homemaker. Mr. Camp is survived by his wife, Kathleen; his two sons, Joe and Brandon; and his stepchildren, David Wolff, Dylan Wolff and Allegra Wolff. His first wife, Carolyn, whom he married in 1960, died in 1997 from a heart disorder at age 58.

After “Benji: Off the Leash!” disappointed at the box office, Mr. Camp turned to a new love: horses. He wrote multiple books, including the 2009 memoir, “The Soul of a Horse: Life Lessons from the Herd,” about his journey into becoming a horseman.

But it is the “Benji” series for which Mr. Camp will most be remembered. For decades, he defied Hollywood suits to tell heartwarming stories in the way he wanted to.

“The whole point of it is to say, ‘If this dog can do it, if I can do it, this idiot from the sticks of the South can do it, anyone can do it. If you try hard enough and you don’t give up,’ “ Mr. Camp told The Associated Press in 2003. “That’s what ‘Benji’ movies are all about.”

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