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Frank Inn, 86; Trained Benji the Dog

July 29, 2002|JON THURBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Frank Inn, the trainer of some of Hollywood's best-known animal performers, including Benji the dog, has died. He was 86.

In failing health for some time with diabetes, Inn died Saturday at a nursing home in Sylmar, his daughter Kathleen Hees said. Inn had fallen in February and had been in the nursing home since that time.

In addition to the spunky Benji, probably the most famous of his animal proteges, Inn worked with Arnold the pig on the 1960s sitcom "Green Acres" and with Cleo the basset hound on the 1950s program "The People's Choice." Inn's career, which started in films in the 1930s, spanned 50 years.

Born in Canby, Ind., Inn was the eldest of four children. His parents ran a flower shop and nursery. As a teenager he rode the rails west, taking a variety of odd jobs, including circus clown, as he made his way to California.

His life took a sudden and nearly fatal turn not long after he arrived in California. Seriously injured when he was struck by a car, he was pronounced dead by a doctor at a Culver City hospital and taken to the morgue, his daughter said. But a student learning embalming detected a faint heartbeat, and Inn was given medical attention.

He was confined to a wheelchair for what was to be a long recovery. He was given a puppy to keep him company, and the experience with the dog proved to be his first at training animals.

When he was well enough to return to work, he started doing odd jobs for Henry East, MGM's prop master, who also was the animal wrangler on the lot. Inn learned how to work with animals and started building a career training them for the screen.

For 14 years he worked with Rudd Weatherwax, the trainer of the dogs that played Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. Though Weatherwax got the credit for training Lassie, it was Inn, his daughter recalled, who stayed with the dog in the freight car on the train to location sites to film "Lassie Come Home" (1943).

Inn started his own company in 1954. He worked out of his ranch in Sun Valley, which he stocked with dogs, cats, farm animals and jungle animals.

He found the dog that played Benji at an animal shelter in Burbank in 1960.

Inn stopped by the facility after getting a call from an animal control officer who told him the honey-brown part-terrier needed a home or would be put to sleep.

Inn took the dog, who was then called Higgins, to his Sun Valley compound and eventually found a spot for him on the 1963-70 series "Petticoat Junction." When the show folded, Higgins retired, and Inn never expected him to work again.

In 1973, Joe Camp, a Dallas filmmaker who had written a script tentatively called "Benji," visited Inn's compound, looking for a dog to play the title role.

"I showed him 300 dogs," Inn later said, "and he wasn't very impressed. But as he was leaving, he spotted [Higgins] in the yard, and right away he said, 'Now, that's Benji.' " The film, the first of several featuring the canine character, was released in 1974. The original Benji died in 1978 at age 19. His offspring appeared in subsequent productions.

In addition to his work on "Petticoat Junction" and "Green Acres," Inn trained the nearly 500 animals that appeared on the 1960s series "The Beverly Hillbillies."

In addition to his daughter Hees of Chico, Inn is survived by another daughter, Lori Grajeda, also of Chico; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Plans for memorial services are pending.

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