Hollywood hopefuls

LOS ANGELES, CA -- Barking and yelping for attention, the tail-wagging Hollywood hopefuls press their noses against cages. ''Benji'' director Joe Camp walks through the gloomy, smelly animal shelter looking into pleading eyes. This is a life-or-death canine casting call.

''Hello . . . come here,'' Camp softly says, scratching the filthy, matted head of a white poodle mix. The panting pooch jumps on his hind legs like a spring.

Camp takes out a ''Benji'' videocassette cover with a picture of the floppy-eared mixed-terrier movie star and holds it next to the nameless poodle stray. ''Not a Benji, but an interesting attitude,'' he says, before moving on.

Camp, a gentle, gray-haired storyteller, is on a tear-jerking journey, searching shelters nationwide for a new Benji and 26 other dogs who will play supporting roles in ''Benji Returns—The Promise of Christmas.''

The original Benji was rescued from a Burbank pound and was Dog on ''Petticoat Junction'' before debuting in his 1974 namesake movie. A New York film critic once gushed that Benji's ability to emote made him the ''Laurence Olivier of the dog world.'' And, according to the American Humane Society, Benji's adorableness spurred the adoption of 1 million unwanted pets.

When the first Benji got too old, his daughter and then a distant cousin took over. And now, with the third Benji retiring, Camp's mission is to publicize the plight of all cast-off companions by discovering his furry thespians in pounds.

As he sees it, his whiskered actors who will be placed with families before filming begins—will be poster dogs for their local shelters.

On this day, Camp begins at a city-run pound north of downtown Los Angeles, the 13th shelter he has visited in five states. Only in Los Angeles has Camp seen five dogs crammed into a tiny kennel built for one. Seventy percent of the 70,000 animals the six city shelters take in yearly are euthanized.

''It's very heartbreaking to walk through at all and not be able to do something for each of them,'' he says, as a basset hound wails and a golden retriever mix licks his hand.

Besides a physical similarity, Camp knows exactly what he's looking for in the next Benji. ''The dog has to be very independent and has to be able to say, `OK, you're cool, I don't need you. I can do this on my own,' '' he says. ''Kind of arrogant.''

This could be such a Hollywood tale. The North Central Animal Care and Control Center is in a low-income, graffiti-scarred neighborhood across from an exotic dance club with a sign that screams, ''LIVE NUDE GIRLS.'' On this typical morning, a man dumped off his four dogs and a woman brought newborn kittens in an 18-pack Budweiser beer carton.

A year-old tan shepherd mix with a white stripe on his chest and bent-over ears catches Camp's eye for a supporting role. The mongrel, identified as ''Booking Number 421830,'' seems spooked in a cage with a brown pit bull and another dog whose paperwork warns he bites. A worker takes the shepherd down a dark hallway on a rope and into a yard with dead grass so Camp can better check him out.

''This is hard because I just want to take him away,'' Camp says, rubbing the would-be actor's cheeks.

After a trip to a county pound in Downey, Camp travels to the Pasadena Humane Society shelter, a clean, privately run way station with kennels that have overhead misters and heated floors.

He plays with a 7-year-old Benji potential, who is more into sniffing plants. The dog's hair is a bit wiry and his legs a tad long, but it's the best Camp has seen in town. He'll keep him in mind.

But it's a puppy that melts Camp's heart. ''Ohhhh . . . the face looks just like Benji,'' he swoons as a cutie bounds over to a fence to say hello.

The 10-week-old seems perfect. Camp has the dog brought into an office, where the mutt mugs for a camera and makes those funny expressions that Benji did.

A star is born. If the shelter can find a foster parent, which a representative assures Camp she will do, the pooch will get a supporting role.