July 10, 2021

BENJI, ZAX & THE ALIEN PRINCE

 

BENJI, ZAX & THE ALIEN PRINCE
(CBS, September 17-December 17, 1983)
 
Hanna-Barbera Productions, Mulberry Square Productions
 

 
MAIN CAST:
Chris Burton – Prince Yubi, T.J. Parker
Ric Spiegel – Zax, Circon, Harwell Thompson
Benjean – Benji
Angie Bolling (eps. 1-8) & Anna Holbrook (eps. 9-13) – Darah
Joe Rainer (eps. 1-8) & Dallas Miles (eps. 9-13) – Khyber
Ken Miller – Zanu

 
 
            Joe Camp had some concerns over G-rated films in the United States. He felt that many studios just churned them out with little regard to quality, leading to the overall public feeling of “If it’s G, it can’t be for me.” Camp decided to make his own G-rated film, and to make it a good one. Rustling up $500,000 and inspired by Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, Camp conceived of a film starring a dog: Benji.



            Benji was about the titular dog, a stray who had various human friends around a small town; particularly the Chapman children, Paul (Allen Fiuzat) and Cindy (Cynthia Smith). Unfortunately, their father, Dr. Chapman (Peter Breck), wasn’t fond of dogs and refuted all attempts the children made to adopt Benji. However, when criminals plotting to kidnap the Chapman children ended up taking residence in the abandoned house Benji stayed in, he quickly came to their rescue to foil the sinister plot.

Higgins with Frank Inn.


            Benji was a small mixed-breed dog named Higgins, rescued from the Burbank animal shelter by trainer Frank Inn in 1960. Before becoming the titular canine, he had appeared in most of Petticoat Junction, Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies, won a PATSY award in 1966, and was featured on the cover of TV Guide. Inn had called Higgins the smartest dog he ever worked with, who was able to learn new tricks and routines every week and retain them, making him ideal for use in various and complex roles. Higgins also had a very expressive face, able to convey a wide array of emotions. Benji was Higgins’ final role before his death in 1975.

Lobby card for Benji featuring the titular dog and some of his human co-stars.


            Benji opened on October 17, 1974, written, directed and produced by Camp through his production company, Mulberry Square Productions. It ended up pulling in $45 million at the box-office, becoming the 9th highest-grossing film of the year. Higgins was nominated for another PATSY, although he lost out to Tonto the cat from Harry and Tonto. In 1977, a sequel was released called For the Love of Benji, which embroiled the canine in an international spy thriller. Camp again helmed the film, this time with Ben Vaughn co-producing and co-writing it, and with Higgins’ pup Benjean taking over the role. The following year, Benji headed to television with the Emmy-nominated Benji’s Very Own Christmas Story on ABC, co-written by Dan Witt, with two more following in 1980 and 1981.


The first misstep came with the third Benji film, Oh! Heavenly Dog. Abandoning the lovable stray format, this film, co-written by Rod Browning, saw private investigator Benjamin Browning (Chevy Chase) murdered after he finds the woman he’s hired to bodyguard dead. In the afterlife, Benjamin was told he needed to solve his own murder before moving on and was reincarnated as a dog. The film, the first to be rated PG in the series, was released on July 11, 1980 and only grossed $6 million. Chase, who took the role based on the initial script, was turned off by later rewrites and often considered it his worst film.

Publicity shot of Zax, Yubi, Darah, Benji and Khyber.

Rather than return to form, Camp took the franchise in another new direction; likely inspired by the massive success of Return of the Jedi. Partnering with Hanna-Barbera Productions for one of their rare live-action productions, Camp created a television series that would see Benji befriend an alien prince and his robot caretaker. Developed by Len Janson and Chuck Menville, the series followed young Prince Yubi (Chris Burton) from the planet Antars, exiled to Earth with his droid, Zax (Ric Spiegel), when evil despot Zanu (Ken Miller, who also worked on special effects) conquered the planet. He sent hunters to retrieve the Prince; primarily Khyber (Joe Rainer for the first half, Dallas Miles for the second) and Darah (Angie Bolling for the first half, Anna Holbrook for the second) with their own droid, Zord. Due to the hunters’ own incompetence and Benji’s intelligence, Yubi, Zax and Benji were often able to evade capture (or weren’t captured for very long) before moving on to try and lose their pursuers. Additionally, their paths often crossed with other hunters sent to aid Khyber and Darah, or Antarians who took up residence on the planet before them.


The evil Zanu.

Fellow aliens weren’t the only ones they had to worry about. In their travels, they encountered some equally unethical humans such as a group of delinquent kids called The Vikings, a greedy couple posing as Benji’s owners to rob a wealthy man, and a mischievous thief that resembled the prince. Fortunately, there were just as many, if not more, good humans for the trio to befriend and get occasional help from. Additionally, Yubi had to be protective of his cipher; a bracelet-like device that allowed Antarians to survive on Earth.

Hiding out.

Benji, Zax and the Alien Prince debuted on CBS on September 17, 1983 after being part of The CBS Saturday Morning Preview Special the night before. Like most of the Benji films, the series was shot in and around the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex with interior sets built at Las Colinas studios in Irving, Texas. Along with Janson and Menville, who served as story editors, the series was written by John Bradford, Ray Parker, Gene Ayres, Glenn Leopold and Michael Reaves with music by Benji composer Euel Box. Yubi’s costume was designed by Nike. The series only lasted a single season of 13 episodes, with CBS opting to not renew it for another. Between 2003 and 2004, GoodTimes Entertainment released the show onto DVD in both a complete series set and across four three-episode volumes.

The Benji franchise wasn’t done yet, however. Benjean had one final outing in the 1987 film Benji the Hunted, which finally did away with the grandiose plots and returned to the essence of Benji being an intelligent and helpful stray. It grossed over $22 million as a result. Camp’s final film in the series was Benji: Off the Leash! in 2004, which only managed to gross over $3 million and became considered the weakest entry of the franchise. In 2018, Camp’s son Brandon wrote, directed and produced a revival film for Netflix, which became Blumhouse Productions’ first family film. It garnered mixed reviews. 


 
 
EPISODE GUIDE:
“The Prince and the Bag Lady” (9/17/83) – Zax is damaged when he and Benji are chased by Zanu’s hunters into a junkyard and ends up captured.
 
“U.F.O.” (9/24/83) – Investigating a report of a downed spacecraft leads Yubi to be captured by a hunter from Antars.
 
“The Day of the Hunter” (10/1/83) – The hunters lure Yubi out of hiding by using Benji and leaking the whereabouts of his ship to the authorities.
 
“Goldmine” (10/8/83) – Yubi discovers an old cattleman is actually an Antarian, and the hunters set their sights on capturing him.
 
“Goodbye Earth” (10/15/83) – A birthday message from his mother prompts Yubi to get a job at NASA in the hopes of getting home.
 
“Ghostown” (10/22/83) – Benji, Zax and Yubi end up in an abandoned town where outlaw twins hide, and Zax is convinced they’ll sell out Yubi.
 
“The Locals” (10/29/83) – Benji and Zax must retrieve Yubi’s cipher from a gang of boys.
 
“Puppy Love” (11/5/83) – Yubi falls for a girl that ends up being an Antarian sent by Zanu to trap him.
 
“Double Trouble” (11/12/83) – Yubi and a similar-looking shoplifter are confused for each other by the authorities and the hunters.
 
“Don’t Fence Me In” (11/19/83) – Yubi feels smothered by Zax and moves away.
 
“The Flying Lesson (12/3/83) – Yubi’s gift for a kindly veterinarian may be just what they need to get a wounded horse to a faraway animal hospital.
 
“Benji Call Home” (12/10/83) – A wealthy man gives Benji to a crooked couple who claim to be his owners and then proceed to rob his house.
 
“Decoy Droid” (12/17/83) – The hunters manage to capture Zax and replace him with a duplicate droid on their side.

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