The Reluctant Astronaut (1967)
“He’s an ASTRO-KNOTT turned ASTRONAUT in the Maddest Mixup in Space History!!”
Director: Edward J. Montagne
Cast: Don Knotts, Leslie Nielsen, Joan Freeman
Synopsis: Don Knotts is Roy Fleming, a small town kiddie-ride operator who is deathly afraid of heights. After learning that his father has signed him up for the space program, Roy reluctantly heads for Houston…
The Reluctant Astronaut is one of those movies that will no doubt be dear to the hearts of those who remember watching it as a young kid, but which will probably leave most others cold. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a few amusing moments that might raise a smile or too on the faces of detached viewers.
Don Knotts is Roy Fleming, the titular spaceman. He was a comedian who was virtually unknown in the UK, but who had gained a lot of popularity in the States thanks to his appearances on the Andy Griffiths TV shows, and he was, in the mid-1960s, making a concerted effort to break through onto the big screen. History tells us he didn’t succeed, but he generally gave a good account of himself nonetheless. Here he works on a kiddies simulated rocket ride at a fairground which amounts to little more than a couple of small roundabouts and a burger stand where Ellie (Joan Freeman), the woman on whom he’s sweet, works. In the real world, most lookers like Ellie wouldn’t look twice at a bug-eyed, pencil-necked fairground attendant like Roy, even if they are only flipping burgers for a living and, looking back, Ellie doesn’t really seem that interested in him until he receives a letter from NASA informing him his application to be an astronaut The application was actually submitted on Roy’s behalf by his overbearing father, Buck (Arthur O’Connell), but as usual, anything Roy has to say about the matter falls on deaf ears — nobody ever seems to listen to what he has to say until they learn he’s been selected to be an astronaut, whereupon they all hang on his every word — and his old man is so excited about his son bringing some local status to the family name that he just goes along with everyone’s assumptions. The problem is, Roy’s scared of heights, and even has to hide in the bushes beside the runway of the tiny local airport when his plane departs so as not to disappoint the well-wishers who have gathered to send him off. Finally arriving at Cape Kennedy by coach, Roy is befriended by fellow astronaut Major Fred Gifford (Leslie Nielsen), but soon learns that he isn’t to be an astronaut at all, but has been employed as a janitor. His initial relief gives way to anxiety about how he’s going to break the news to the folks back home.
The Reluctant Astronaut was clearly aimed at the kids’ market, and on that level it works pretty well. Children — at least 1960s children — were no doubt highly amused by the physical aspects of Knotts’ brand of comedy. Of more interest to adults — at least the males — might be the location shooting at Johnson and Kennedy Space Centers, and the stock footage of real spacecraft spliced into Knotts’ hijinks. It’s a little strange to see Leslie Nielsen — familiar to us now as the ‘zany’ leading man of a seemingly endless list of spoof comedies — playing a cool and manly heroic type, but he isn’t really called upon to do a lot and his second billing is a little flattering, to say the least. The Reluctant Astronaut is a gentle comedy, and one which was probably already beginning to look a little quaint when it was released back in 1967, but it makes for a harmless time-filler.
(Reviewed 8th May 2014)