Cast & Crew
Lee Harcourt Montgomery
Ben, a rat trained by shy Willard Stiles, turns on his master after being betrayed by him and induces his many rodent followers to murder Willard. After Willard's tattered corpse is discovered, an anxious crowd gathers around his Los Angeles home, and Detective Cliff Kirtland and his assistant, Joe Greer, lead the investigation into his death. They find Willard's diary, detailing his friendship with Socrates, another rat, and Ben, but refuse to release the document, which describes how Willard trained the rats to kill his overbearing boss, veteran newspaperman Billy Hatfield. Ben, who is silently observing the men, has instructed his family to hide in the old mansion's walls. While waiting for health department officials, policemen Kelly and Reade guard the house, and Reade wanders into the cellar where Willard had trained his friends. Reade deduces that the animals are hiding in the walls, but when he rips out one panel, Ben instructs them to kill the policeman. Kelly runs in too late to help his partner, and after surveying the remains, Kirtland gives Willard's diary to Hatfield. The next day, at a nearby house, Eve Garrison and her young brother Danny, who suffers from a potentially fatal heart problem, spend the day together as usual. Ever since the death of their father, Eve has stayed home to care for Danny while their mother Beth struggles to maintain the family business. In his "workroom," a small building close to the house, Danny plays with his beloved marionettes. As Danny begins to eat his lunch, Ben approaches through a hole in a screen, and Danny eagerly shares his sandwich with him. Danny, weary of his enforced solitude, is delighted to learn that when he speaks, Ben understands him. That night, Ben leads the rats on a raid of a food delivery truck, terrifying the driver into hitting an oncoming car. The next day, a policeman notifies the Garrisons that exterminators will be coming through the neighborhood the following morning to install traps and poison. Danny tells his sister and mother that he has a new friend, a rat, but Eve dismisses it as evidence of the boy's active imagination. Eve playfully comments that maybe it was Ben, the leader of the rats in Willard's diary, which has been published in Hatfield's paper, and Danny, who likes the name, decides to use it. That night, Danny composes a song about his friendship with Ben, which touches Eve. Later, Ben and his army, now thousands strong, decimate a supermarket before they are discovered by a night watchman. Ben then leads his followers into the sewer, where they have made their home in a huge, disused room reached via an abandoned tunnel. During the day, Ben again visits Danny's workshop, where Danny puts on a show for him with a rat marionette. Cuddling Ben, Danny shows him the newspaper story about the supermarket raid and warns him that he will have to be more cautious in order to evade capture. Winded after playing Ben's song on his harmonica, Danny shows his furry friend the scar from his heart operation. Danny then watches as the exterminators place traps and poison around the Garrison home. He demonstrates to Ben what the traps are, then releases him in a nearby alley, after which an older, bigger boy, Henry Gray, begins to torment Danny. Infuriated by Henry's attack on Danny, Ben and his followers bite the boy's legs until he runs away. Danny is cheered by his protectors but later that evening, when Kirtland and Greer question him, Danny maintains that Henry fell into a rosebush. When Danny mentions Ben, he cunningly brings out the rat marionette to make them believe that he has made up an imaginary friend. Back at the office, Kirtland and Greer wrangle with a city engineer who maintains that they have searched over two hundred miles of sewers, and that it will take several days to finish their survey of the sewers. While Kirtland is insisting that the search be completed immediately, Ben and his army invade a cheese shop next to a weight loss spa, thereby terrifying the occupants when they swarm through the spa. Another day, after Danny plays with Ben and some of his friends, he asks Ben to show him where they live. Danny follows as Ben leads him down a storm drain and through the tunnels to the room containing thousands of rats. Although the animals' first instinct is to attack Danny, Ben chides them and they fall back. After complimenting Ben on his house, Danny, gasping for breath, struggles home. He hears on the radio that the police are expanding the campaign to destroy the rats, and when Ben and several others appear at the window, Danny gratefully tucks them into his bed. When Eve checks on Danny, she finds the animals sleeping with him and reacts in horror, after which Beth calls Kirtland and Greer. Although Danny refuses to reveal Ben's whereabouts, Kirtland intensifies the search of the area's sewers. When two workers descend into the sewer near Ben's lair, Ben orders his followers to kill them, although one man escapes. Soon a huge assembly of construction workers, police and fire fighters arrive, led by Kirtland and Greer. Using the engineer's maps, they determine that the rats can be driven by flamethrowers and water hoses to an abandoned distribution tank, where they can be drowned. Danny, alerted by roving police cars ordering residents to remain indoors, rushes out and slips into the storm drain to find Ben. Eve follows, although she quickly gets lost as she searches for her brother. As the workmen descend, Danny finds Ben and begs him to flee. Telling him he loves him, Danny follows Ben's directions to leave and is found by Eve. The two eventually find their way to the street through a manhole cover while below, Ben's rats fight vigorously. As the workmen flee, the frustrated Kirtland and Greer go below to appraise the situation and are able to rally their troops enough to overcome the rats' organization and ferocity. After the rodents are killed, Kirtland and Greer discuss the situation with Hatfield, and the policemen admit that they have never faced such determined adversaries. Hatfield opines that all any creature wants is room to live, while at the Garrisons', a sobbing Danny goes to his workroom. Crying over his rat marionette, Danny hears a squeak and sees the wounded Ben, who has managed to escape the carnage. Overjoyed, Danny gets a first aid kit and gently tends to Ben, promising him that they will get well together.
Lee Harcourt Montgomery
Richard Van Vleet
Rolland M. Brooks
Joan Eremin Buck
Moe Di Sesso
James J. Klinger
Leon M. Leon
John E. Pommer
Charles A. Pratt
Gilbert A. Ralston
Earl Williman Jr.
Jack H. Young
Rushed into production, Ben utilized the same producer as Willard, Mort Briskin, as well as the same screenwriter, Gilbert A. Ralston. While Willard was based on a novel (Ratman's Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert), Ben featured an original screenplay with an entirely new story.
Child actor Lee Montgomery (credited here as Lee Harcourt Montgomery) was excited to land the plum role of Danny. He had previously appeared in Disney's 1971 film comedy The Million Dollar Duck as well as several television shows, but Ben was the first film in which he had a starring role. Working with a troupe of rats as co-stars was not a problem for the 11-year-old actor. "I went in the first day, and we met Moe Di Sesso, who was at the time a very famous wrangler of many critters," said Montgomery in a recent interview. "My mother was concerned. I was like, oh, come on -- rats! I'm a kid, this should be great! So we met Moe, and they had hundreds of rats in cages, and there were five Bens...So he broke out Ben, and I think I was a little freaked out, actually, in the beginning. My mom, who is very squeamish, said, 'Look! No big deal!' She got the rat and she held it, and I think she actually was more comfortable, because we all thought she'd be freaked out by the rats, of course. I think she was more comfortable than me in the beginning, but I quickly acclimated to them."
Moe Di Sesso, the rat trainer on Ben, was one of the most skilled and in-demand animal trainers in Hollywood. Over the course of his long career, he trained countless animal actors including Arnold the pig on the TV show Green Acres and Sandy the dog in the 1982 film musical Annie, winning a total of 11 PATSY awards (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year) along the way, including one for both Willard and Ben. Established by the Hollywood office of the American Humane Association in 1951, the PATSY awards are presented annually to honor outstanding animal performances in film and television.
Ben marked the feature film debut of actress Meredith Baxter who would go on to find fame in a variety of television roles, most memorably as matriarch Elyse Keaton on Family Ties during the 1980s. In her 2011 memoir Untied, Baxter recalls shooting one of her favorite scenes in which her character Eve follows Danny into the underground sewer and is attacked by rats. "In retrospect, the special effects used in this scene seemed hilariously low-tech, sort of the grand-scale version of something you'd see in an elementary school play today," she says. "The special effects guys had boxes full of stuffed rats in varying sizes and colors. Some looked phony, others were real taxidermied rats. They fastened them to me with varying lengths of string so when I moved, the rats would swing around somewhat. For the big rodent-swarm moment, I was supposed to crouch down and look into the opening of a pseudo-sewage pipe, facing the camera. The sewer, dressed to look revoltingly filthy and solicit 'eews' from the audience when I fall in it, was just peat moss and bits of fake garbage. On 'Action!' a bunch of real live rats were released down the pipe toward me and at a given point the camera found me being attacked by rats, all of them looking very threatening and disgusting. I screamed, thrashing about wildly in terror, which meant my little tethered vermin passengers were thrashing wildly, too. Ah, we could taste the Oscar."
Ben is perhaps best remembered for its haunting theme song performed by 13-year-old future King of Pop, Michael Jackson. The tender ballad "Ben" or "Ben's Song," with music by Walter Scharf and lyrics by Don Black, was originally offered to the reigning teen idol at the time, Donny Osmond, who turned it down. Jackson, who had only recently begun recording solo records apart from his brothers in The Jackson 5, was thrilled at the opportunity. His soaring vocals filled with emotion helped "Ben's Song" become Jackson's first number one hit single as a solo artist. The song went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song and win a Golden Globe. As Meredith Baxter says in her memoir, "Not bad for a love song about a rat."
For Michael Jackson, the experience was a special one. "Ben meant a lot to me," said Jackson in his 1988 autobiography Moonwalk. "Nothing had ever excited me as much as going to the studio to put my voice on film. I had a great time. Later when the movie came out, I'd go to the theater and wait until the end when the credits would flash on, and it would say, '"Ben" sung by Michael Jackson.' I was really impressed by that. I loved the song and I loved the story...A lot of people thought the movie was a bit odd, but I was not one of them. The song went to number one and is still a favorite of mine."
Ben did not live up to the box office success of Willard and critical reviews were mixed. The New York Times called it out for its "dreadful acting by a dreadful cast...and a screenplay that never has the courage to acknowledge its comic impulses," while Variety praised it, saying, "Willard has a tension-packed sequel in Ben...[Lee Montgomery] plays his part to perfection and Phil Karlson's direction is responsible for mounting moments of excitement, well handled by cast headed by Joseph Campanella as a police lieutenant in charge of crisis and Meredith Baxter, [Danny's] sister." Today, Ben remains a cult favorite among horror fans who revel in its excess and flirtation with camp, especially when viewed in tandem with the original Willard.
By Andrea Passafiume
Although the film's copyright holder and production company is listed by copyright records as Bing Crosby Productions, Inc., some contemporary sources refer to the company as BCP Productions, Inc. Ben begins with footage from its predecessor, the 1971 picture Willard (see below). Underneath the credits for Ben is footage of "Willard Stiles," played by Bruce Davison, finding the rat "Ben," whom he thought was dead, in his house. Ben organizes his army of rats to kill Willard, and after he is dead, the credits end and the film begins as a crowd gathers outside of Willard's home.
In July 1971, Cinerama announced plans to make a sequel to Willard, one of the top-grossing films of 1971. Mort Briskin repeated his role as producer, with the screenplay again written by Gilbert A. Ralston. Although Willard was based on the book Ratman's Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert, the screenplay for Ben was original, using only the character of Ben. Moe Di Sesso, who trained the 500 rats used in Willard, trained approximately 4,000 rats for Ben, according to studio publicity notes, which also reported that portions of the picture were shot at the same Wilshire Blvd. mansion, built in 1908 and formerly owned by Howard Verbeck, that was used in Willard.
A November 3, 1971 Daily Variety news item reported that Ben Frank had been added to the cast, but his appearance in the finished picture has not been confirmed. Harold Lewis is credited with sound on the film's first Hollywood Reporter production chart but in all subsequent charts, Leon M. Leon, who is credited onscreen, is listed rather than Lewis. The extent of Lewis' contribution to the completed film, if any, has not been determined. Although the onscreen credits "introduce" child actor Lee Harcourt Montgomery, he had previously appeared in the 1971 Disney film The Million Dollar Duck (see below).
"Ben's Song," which was sung by Michael Jackson, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Song and won a Golden Globe for Best Original Song. The song became one of the young Jackson's most popular hits and was recorded by several other singers. According to October 1974 Daily Variety and Hollywood Reporter news items, Cinema Songs, the company that first published "Ben's Song," sued Bing Crosby Productions, Cinerama Releasing and Jobete Music Co. over the division of royalties, but the disposition of the case has not been determined. The rat playing Ben won a Patsy Award honoring animal performers, according to a September 1972 Los Angeles Times news item. Although the pressbook for Ben implied that there would be another sequel, featuring 10,000 rats, to be released in 1973, the film was not made.
The rat playing Ben won a Patsy Award (honors animal performers.)
Winner of Golden Globe for Best Original Song ("Ben's Song.")
Released in United States Summer June 1972
Sequel to "Willard" (1971) directed by Daniel Mann.
Based on characters that were created by Stephen Gilbert.
Released in United States Summer June 1972