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The working title of this film was Ratman's Notebooks, the title of the Stephen Gilbert novel upon which the picture was based. In both the opening and ending cast credits, Ernest Borgnine is listed "And Ernest Borgnine as Martin." Robert Goodstein's onscreen credit reads: "Assistant Director and Unit Production Manager." The film was the first theatrical production from Bing Crosby Productions (BCP) since its purchase by Cox Broadcasting in 1968. By 1971, Crosby was no longer associated with BCP, which had produced a number of pictures during the 1940s and 1950s.
According to the film's pressbook and other contemporary sources, husband-and-wife animal trainers Moe and Nora Di Sesso purchased a dozen rats from a pet store, then spent a year training approximately 500 of their offspring for the film. The rat "Ben" appeared only in closeups, according to a September 1971 LAHExam article, with fourteen "backup" rats of the same size and color "performing his stunts." According to a July 1971 Entertainment Today article, officials from the Los Angeles chapter of the ASPCA were "on hand at all times" to verify that the rats were not mistreated.
Several contemporary sources, including a June 1971 Variety article, reported that distributor Cinerama Releasing was initially uncertain about how much to emphasize the rats when advertising Willard. According to the Variety article, the advertising firm of Diener, Hauser, Greenthal organized two ad campaigns, both with the tagline "the one movie you should not see alone." One campaign featured the rats while the other did not. Two test screenings were held in Pennsylvania on February 26, 1971, and the screening using the advertising with the rats grossed higher than the one that did not, so Cinerama Releasing decided to emphasize the rats in its exploitation campaign. As noted by contemporary sources, the picture's highly popular posters featured either a single shot of Ben or a shot of Ben sitting on "Willard's" shoulder, and the posters have since become a cult collector's item. Willard became one of the biggest box-office hits of 1971, with Filmfacts reporting that it "grossed well over twelve million dollars in the first four months of its release."
According to the Los Angeles Times review, Willard's house was "the old Howard Verbeck mansion on Lucerne near Wilshire [Blvd., in Los Angeles], an imposing landmark built in 1908." Modern sources add Bern Hoffman and Paul Bradley to the cast. On January 22, 1971, Variety reported that actor Richard Minugh was suing BCP for wages owed to him for appearing in the film. Minugh's appearance in the completed picture and the outcome of the suit have not been determined. Willard marked the last film of prolific film editor Warren Low (1905-1989), who was nominated for four Oscars over his four-decades long career.
In 1972, Cinerama Releasing distributed a sequel to Willard entitled Ben, about a lonely young boy who befriends Ben and his army of rats. Directed by Phil Karlson with a screenplay by Gilbert A. Ralston, the picture starred Lee Harcourt Montgomery and featured a hit title song sung by Michael Jackson. In 2003, New Line Cinema released another movie, also entitled Willard, based on Gilbert's novel. Directed and written by Glen Morgan, the picture starred Crispin Glover as Willard. Photographs of Bruce Davison, who played the role in the 1971 film, were used in the 2003 film to depict Willard's late father.