- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 19, 2012

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Have you seen this dog?

It’s a mutt _ mischievous, medium-sized, scruffy and street-smart with soulful eyes. Comfortable as hero or underdog, yet likely to be a stray. Must be a fast learner, able to charm millions and willing to work for food.

Brandon Camp, whose father created “Benji” nearly 40 years ago, and veteran movie trainer Mark Forbes have set out to find a new Benji in a nationwide search that includes online tools and sites that weren’t around when the first four Benjis were discovered.

A Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/benjithemovie) has been set up so pet owners and shelter staffs can post pictures and videos of dogs they think could be the next Benji.

Camp and Forbes will scour photos of pets from shelters and rescues across the country, along with sites like petfinder.com and adoptapet.com. Forbes said he was personally visiting every shelter within 75 miles of Los Angeles, where he is general manager and head trainer at Birds and Animals Unlimited.

The original 1974 movie “Benji” is about a stray who helps save two kidnapped children. It was written, produced, directed and financed by Camp’s father, Joe Camp. When he couldn’t find a distributor, he and his wife, the late Carolyn Camp, decided to do it themselves.

There would be four sequels, several TV specials, a Saturday morning TV series, a syndicated comic strip and all kinds of merchandizing deals. More than 73 million people would see “Benji” at theaters and more than a billion people around the world watch it on television. Millions of DVDs would be sold.

The original Benji was Higgins, adopted in the early 1960s from the Burbank Animal Shelter by late animal trainer Frank Inn. Higgins played Dog in the television series “Petticoat Junction” for several years. At the age of 14, he became Benji.

The second Benji was Higgins’ daughter, the third was a distant relative and the fourth was adopted from the Humane Society of South Mississippi.

“I only have snapshot memories of the original,” said Brandon Camp, who was just 3 years old when “Benji” came out. “The second Benji is the one I grew up with and traveled with and knew and loved.”

The dog was so much a part of his life, he was nicknamed Benji at school. The two of them were constantly on the go _ from White House Easter egg hunts to morning shows, late shows and show-and-tells. “I missed most of my first grade because I was traveling around with Benji,” said Camp, who directed “Love Happens.”

When he was 6 or 7, Camp went to New York so Benji could ride a float in the Macy’s parade, where thousands of people were trying to get close to see him. “It was the first time I realized what kind of star he was,” he remembers.

Camp said the new movie will stay true to the heart of the original Benji. “Parents and grandparents will recognize the spirit of Benji,” he said. “He was always a mutt and will always be a mutt. He is the everydog.”

But can a sequel be as good as the original? Besides millions of Benji fans making comparisons, Camp is aware his father, who now lives in Tennessee, will be watching, too.

“The irony is he doesn’t have to say a thing. I hear his voice constantly in my head. If I screw this up, I have to look him in the eye,” he said.

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