A graduate of Michigan State University where he was a member of Delta Tau Delta International Fraternity, Joel Higgins initially performed in coffee houses to help pay his way through school. After leaving with a degree in advertising and working for six months for General Motors, Higgins went to Europe to perform.
In 1968, Higgins enlisted in the United States Army and was stationed at Camp Casey in Korea, serving as the Special Services Sergeant in charge of Entertainment. Following his Army days, he and several friends wrote a musical revue called The Green Apple Nasties. After leaving the Army, he sold the show to a producer and went on the road for two and a half years. During a performance in Louisville, Kentucky, Higgins was approached by a producer who asked him to play Sky Masterson in a local theater production of Guys and Dolls. He went on a 17-week tour of the Midwest in the role.
In 1973, Higgins landed the role of Vince in the first national tour of Grease, where he stayed for a year before leaving to join the pre-Broadway tryout of a new musical called Shenandoah. In 1975, he won the Theatre World Award for his role in the Broadway version of Shenandoah. In the same year, he began the role Bruce Carson in the CBS soap opera Search For Tomorrow, and in the following year he returned to Broadway for Music Is. In 1978, Higgins was featured in the role of Ben Gant in the Broadway musical Angel. While the show only ran for five nights, Higgins received a Drama Desk Award nomination for his performance.
Higgins made the transition from daytime to primetime in 1979, with a starring role in the short-lived ABC television series Salvage 1 with Andy Griffith. Two years later, he starred in the ABC sitcom Best of the West as United States Marshal Sam Best who, after returning from fighting in the American Civil War, uproots his family and moves them out west. The series was canceled after one season. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, he also appeared in several movies, including Bare Essence, Threesome, First Affair, and Killing At Hell's Gate. He also continued to perform on stage in the musicals She Loves Me, Oklahoma!, Music Is, and Camp Meeting, as well as writing jingles for Kool-Aid, I Can't Believe it's not Butter, M&M's, and the theme song for Lucille Ball's comeback series Life With Lucy.
Higgins has performed in several theaters around the country including The Muny in Forest Park (the largest and oldest outdoor theatre in America) in St. Louis, Missouri.
In 1982, Embassy Television and NBC created the TV series Silver Spoons. Higgins played Edward W. Stratton III, the childlike son of one of the country's richest industrialists.
In the show's opening he learned he has a twelve-year-old son, played by Ricky Schroeder, the product of his first marriage (lasting all of seven days). Higgins was the only member of the cast familiar with doing comedy, and took each of the others under his wing to teach them what he knew. His character went from a childish playboy to a responsible father and husband but still maintained a touch of that little boy charm. The series ran from 1982 to 1987, the first four seasons airing on NBC and the fifth and final, in first-run syndication.
Higgins returned in a new ABC comedy, Have Faith, in the spring of 1989, playing a church monsignor overseeing a madcap staff, co-stars of which included Ron Carey and Stephen Furst. The series did not fare well in the ratings, and expired after its short tryout run. Higgins has continued guest star on numerous television series since that time.
Higgins most recently appeared in Dead Canaries, in 2003, a crime drama featured at the 2004 Bahamas International Film Festival.