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Benji: The movie star dog that McKinney helped put on the map

"We say that nobody has ever done a movie like this because it's from the dog's point of view," Camp said.

MCKINNEY, Texas — From directors to actors to producers, there's a lot of cinema weaved into North Texas history.

While there are plenty of people worth mentioning, there's a well-known, four-legged pup who has a special connection to the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.

And on Sunday, the town that helped put that dog on the map nationally honored him and the people who helped turned him into a movie star.

From the shelter to the screen

In 1960, well-known animal trainer Frank Inn came across a little dog in a California animal shelter called "Higgins." While it isn't known exactly what breed Higgins was, many believe him to be some sort of a mixture involving Cocker Spaniel, Miniature Poodle and Schnauzer.

Higgins quickly became a well-trained, smart dog on the screen, eventually earning a role in the popular 1960s and 1970s television series, "The Beverly Hillbillies."

Credit: The Beverly Hillbillies (1962)
Well-known by many in the cinema industry, Higgins can be seen here during an episode of the television series "The Beverly Hillbillies."

Higgins won numerous awards, including a Picture Animal Top Star of the Year (PATSY) Award in 1966 for the television category. 

Inn talked about Higgins as one of the smartest dogs he had ever worked with in many interviews and praised him for his versatility in terms of his tricks.

Eventually, in the 1970s, Higgins moved to the movie screen and took on the iconic role of Benji for the 1974 movie "Benji."

Choosing McKinney

The original "Benji" movie was written, produced and directed by Joe Camp. He had a budget of $500,000 for the film while also having every Hollywood studio turn it down.

So, Camp formed his own film company. And he chose McKinney, Texas, as the main shooting location for the movie. There were other scenes shot in Denton as well as Dallas.

"We lived there basically for several months," Camp said, speaking of McKinney.

Camp said the main house he chose for Benji's home that you see in the film looked exactly like it did when he first drove by it.

While Camp initially had a different vision for what the house should be, he said his wife knew instantly it was the right choice.

Camp also said while the people have changed after five decades since filming it, the city of McKinney has a special feel and look to it that gave "Benji" the atmosphere he was looking for.

"Character has been there for 50 years," Camp said.

The movie went on to gross $45 million at the box office and became a family classic for generations to come. The movie's theme song, "I Feel Love" by Charlie Rich was also nominated for Best Original Song.

"We say that nobody has ever done a movie like this because it's from the dog's point of view," Camp said.

Credit: Benji (1974)
The original Benji movie poster from 1974.

Honoring the hound

To celebrate Benji's upcoming 50-year anniversary from the year it was released in 1974, the city of McKinney organized a parade on Sunday that featured hundreds of dogs honoring Benji.

Afterward, city leaders unveiled a sculpture of Benji at Mitchell Park near the downtown area of McKinney.

McKinney hired acclaimed New Mexico artist Susan Norris to make the statue as she is someone who focuses on and loves creating artwork revolving around animals.

"I've always been artistically inclined since I could remember," Norris said. "I was an only child so I spent a lot of time by myself. I would draw on napkins. Draw on the back of the paper. Placemats."

Credit: Jay Wallis
Artist Susan Norris showcases her Benji statue that took months to research for and put together.

Today, Norris said she gets a lot of her work through word of mouth whenever there are large animal projects.

She has taken on jobs such as making a waving bear that was commissioned by Baylor University for annual Distinguished Alumni awards and creating a life-size military service dog in four different locations, including Dallas.

"To me, they're all just as important as far as getting the personality," Norris said, speaking to art involving animals compared to humans.

While Norris first watched "Benji" when she was younger, she said she rewatched the movie multiple times to get a better grasp of the dog's personality. She started working on the project in July of 2022 to get in ready in time for the February 2023 celebration.

"Getting gestures, getting poses and seeing how that dog behaved," Norris said.

Norris said the hardest but most satisfying part of putting together any type of art involving animals is figuring out what to do with the eyes.

"To get the face and the expression, you want it to say something," Norris said. "The eyes are the most important part because that's the expression."

Credit: Jay Wallis

Camp said once he talked with Norris and saw the other work she had done related to animals, he mainly stayed out of her hair and let her get to work on the statue.

"I think it turned out great," Camp said.

"She has managed to incorporate the stuff in that thing that makes that dog come alive, really," Camp said. "It gives you some of the emotion of what Benji is about. It's super."

While Norris considers Benji the dog an "American icon," she also said she hopes her statue can not only bring some nostalgia to those who know of the movie but also encourage younger people who might walk by the statue to check out the film for the first time

"I'm very honored that I was the artist chosen to do it," Norris said.

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