The original Benji came out of a shelter, which stimulated the whole shelter issue
–Joe Camp, Conversation with Film Director Joe Camp
Did you know that some of our most loved canine stars were just days or hours away from being euthanized before they hit the big time? Or that others had been relinquished or abandoned before being discovered? Some owners of these canine celebs have even used the spotlight to promote awareness of shelter dogs. Over a series of three posts, I’ll acquaint you with some of these stars. This post features famous dogs who were saved from shelters.
Frank Inn was an animal lover and professional trainer who was always taking in animals from shelters to save them from euthanasia. When he couldn’t train them, he would find them a home with his friends or fans. He found Higgins, the original Benji, as a puppy in the Burbank Animal Shelter.
Higgins debuted in Petticoat Junction, where he appeared in six of the show’s seven total seasons. During that time, he also made guest appearances on other popular shows, earning the attention of directors and co-stars who noticed both his ability to convey a broad range of facial expressions and his aptitude for new tricks. Higgins was such a capable animal actor that he was featured on the cover of TV Guide and won the 1967 PATSY Award, which is given to the top animal star of the year.
Higgins became a household name after starring in the 1974 movie Benji. While he didn’t appear in the sequels, the fourth Benji came from a shelter too. If you’re wondering what the big deal is, the Humane Society has been quoted by the Benji website as saying that more than one million dogs have been adopted across the country because the original Benji was rescued from an animal shelter. Actually, because when a dog stars in a movie, there is usually a rush to own a similar dog, a mutt was deliberately picked for the part. In addition, Benji is partnered with Pets911, the nation’s largest web shelter adoption service, to promote the adoption of pets who desperately need homes. Reportedly, Benji is only the second animal (Lassie was first) ever to be inducted into the Animal Actors Hall of Fame.
Eight years ago, Rudy was a Hillsborough County shelter dog with 24 hours to live. He got a reprieve and today the yellow Labrador retriever is a movie star.
–Elizabeth Parker, Local Rescue Dog Plays Part in Marley
A series of other celebrity dogs also escaped euthanasia. For example, there’s Aliester, a 5-year-old terrier mix that was found in a California shelter in 2008, and who played Duke in the movie Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Aliester wasn’t the only rescue dog on the set. These days when a dog has a starring role, having two to three matching dogs is required. The dog trainer had found a perfect double named Mulligan, but needed to wait a week before she could adopt him. Mother Nature Network quotes her as saying, “A week into our training, I called to shelter to check on this dog and find out that they had messed up the dates in the computer system and had scheduled to euthanize the dog that same morning. He was already in the back room when I called. I was so sad to think this wonderful little dog would not be here anymore if I had not had the strange instinct to call the shelter that morning to check up on him….” Two other shelter dogs were also involved in the film.
Then there’s Charlie Gray, who portrayed Freeway in the Hart to Hart television series. His trainer revealed that Freeway had been under sentence of death. A Hart to Hart fan page reports it was only his bright eyes and perky love of life that saved him. “I went down to the shelter, just down the road from here and there was this little dog, looking at me and saying ‘When’s my call to go to the studio?’ I brought him back, and he turned out to be a great little dog.” The Harts’ dog, Freeway, was a Lowchen breed. Interestingly, he earned his name because his backstory on the show is that he was found by the side of a freeway.
Next up is Rudy, one of the dogs who had the title role in the movie Marley and Me. He was just over a year old when Woolley, a volunteer with Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida Inc., learned he was about to be euthanized by Hillsborough County Animal Services. Woolley tried to find him a home, but perhaps because he had so much energy people kept bringing him back. Ironically, it was his energy that caught the attention of talent scouts. The rest is movie history. A little bit of interesting trivia is that Marley was actually played by 22 different puppies and adult dogs; six were rescues.
Fourth is Maui, who played Murray in the TV sitcom Mad About You. Like many of the dogs featured here, he was adopted from a California shelter by his animal trainer. Before his role in Mad About You, Maui acted in commercials. As Murray, he played a lovable but slightly dim-witted dog. Mutt News shares this opinion by the trainer: “Maui is definitely smarter than Murray, and he knows tons of tricks.” Among Maui’s favorite skills are “hiking” (making people believe he is relieving himself), crawling, shaking his head, sneezing, and rolling over. In the summer of 1994, he shared the cover of TV Guide with fellow star Moose, who played Eddie on Frasier.
Then there’s Spike, a dog actor best known for his performance as Old Yeller in the 1957 Disney film of the same name. Spike was rescued as a pup from a shelter in California. His trainer taught him to be a well-adjusted family pet who was eager to please and, when he heard calls for a dog for the movie Old Yeller, he took Spike to audition for the part. The casting executives at Disney thought Spike was too easy going. They wanted a meaner and tougher-looking dog. After a few weeks of intense training, Weatherwax got a new audition for his dog, and Spike entered gained Hollywood fame. After the Old Yeller movie, Spike starred in a few television shows.
Wrapping up my list of famous dogs who have escaped euthanasia is Trike who starred in the movie Mad Max. At some point after Max leaves civilization following the loss of his family he encounters an Australian Cattle Dog that becomes a faithful companion. The filmmakers auditioned over 100 dogs to no avail until visiting a dog pound where they found a two year old Australian Cattle Dog scheduled to be put down. When Trike fetched a rock that the director had thrown and brought it back to the director’s feet, he got the part. However, a problem occurred soon after Trike joined the set, which is he became terrified if there were loud noises and would soil himself. Cotton in Trike’s ears was discovered to solve the problem.
Are there ones I’ve missed? If so, share in the comments! Then check back later in the week for a post about famous dogs who were relinquished or abandoned by their original owners.
FAMOUS SHELTER DOGS
- Famous Dogs from Shelters or Streets
- Famous Rescue Dogs
- Famous TV and Movie Pets from Shelters
- Five Shelter Dogs Who Became Famous
- Meet Six Famous Shelter Pets
- Shelter Dog Becomes Movie Star
- IMDB: Benji
- Conversation with Film Director Joe Camp
- IMDB: Freeway
- Hart to Hart: Freeway
- Look Back on Murray from Mad About You
- Local Rescue Dog Plays Part in Marley and Me
- Real Life Marley Goes from Stray to Star
- IMDB: Spike
- Mad Max & Dog