Thursday, March 14, 2013
One of the most beloved and well known animal actors during the 1960s and 1970s was a scruffy little shelter dog named Higgins. This pup played all sorts of roles, but is probably best known as the dog on the Petticoat Junction TV show and as the title role in the movie Benji. As a kid, I was crazy about every show and movie that had a prominent animal actor, but the movie Benji was a particular favorite. I’m certain this movie was a contributing factor in establishing my lifelong passion for animals.
Higgins was discovered by Frank Inn, a Hollywood animal trainer and true animal lover. Inn was known to visit animal shelters and take home all the healthy pets because he couldn’t stand for them to be euthanized. He kept and trained the ones that he thought had potential as an animal actor and he found loving homes for the rest. There was a time when Inn and his assistants had over 1,000 animals in their care.
It was during one of Inn’s shelter sweeps at the Burbank Animal Shelter when he found a special little tan-and-black mixed breed puppy. Inn believed this little pup was a combination of Border Terrier, Cocker Spaniel, Miniature Poodle and Schnauzer. With Frank Inn’s incredible talent as a dog trainer and this puppy’s natural abilities, the dog went on to become what some people consider the best animal actor of our times.
Higgins first major national role was of the dog (creatively called Dog or sometimes called Boy, as in “Here, Boy”) in Petticoat Junction. Higgins appeared in 163 episodes from 1964 to 1970, and even though he was un-credited in this role, it introduced him to millions of fans. During that time, he also made guest appearances on Green Acres and Beverly Hillbillies. Even though he was from Burbank, California, Higgins must have had a southern accent.
For outstanding performance in television sitcoms, Higgins won a Patsy (Performing Animal Television Star of the Year) award in 1967. He also scored a coveted cover photograph and a feature article in TV Guide magazine. What made this little dog so special was his precious, expressive face; he was able to convey a vast range of emotions on that sweet face.
His trainer, who had trained thousands of animals over his long career, noted that Higgins was able to learn a new routine or trick every week, and he could even remember them for years! Because of the dog’s incredible memory, Inn was able to combine tricks so that Higgins could do increasingly complex stunts. In fact, Inn once told a reporter that Higgins was the smartest dog he’d ever worked with. That’s a big deal, especially when you consider that Inn also trained Lassie.
After an illustrious career in television, in 1971 Higgins starred in a movie with Vincent Price and Zsa Zsa Gabor titled Mooch Goes to Hollywood. He was 11 years old, and retired after that movie.
But Higgins’s turn at stardom wasn’t quite over. In 1974, at the age of 14, Frank Inn agreed to bring Higgins out of retirement so he could star as the loveable mongrel in Joe Camp’s movie, Benji.
Higgins only starred in the first Benji movie. His daughter Benjean took over the role in the sequels. This talented animal actor spent the rest of his days beside his best friend and trainer Frank Inn, and lived to the age of 17.
Are there any other Benji lovers out there? What’s your favorite dog movie?
Read more articles by Langley Cornwell