The Reluctant Astronaut (1967) – A Review


A review of the 1967 comedy The Reluctant Astronaut, starring Don Knotts as the unlikeliest space adventurer ever! Also starring a young Leslie Nielsen

Don Knotts is Roy Fleming, a carnival ride operator who gets the chance of a lifetime when an application to NASA sent by his father on his behalf gets answered and he’s accepted to become an astronaut!

There’s a few problems though. Roy suffers from severe acrophobia (that’s fear of heights, not exacltly something a brave astronaut is supposed to have). Also, that letter of acceptance by NASA wasn’t meant for him to have a position as an astronaut, but to be a janitor at NASA. Ooops!

Pile on top of that, Roy can’t bring himself to explain this mixup to his proud father, who has already told the whole town that his son will be going up to space! You want more to add to Roy’s dilemma? OK! The girl he has been pining away for has suddenly taken notice of him since he’s become an astronaut in training!

What else can Roy do, but try to pretend to everyone back home he’s actually working as an astronaut. It will take some boasting and an awful lot of panicking by Knotts to pull this charade off! That is until he actually gets recruited by NASA to help with a space experiment, gets to step into a space capsule and take an orbit around the globe. Of course, this being a Don Knotts comedy things can’t possibly go very smoothly for Roy in outer space either.

The-Reluctant-Astronaut-1967-comedy-Don-Knotts-outer-spaceAfter endearing himself to television audiences as Deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show, by the mid-1960s Knotts began to make the transition to feature films. Following The Incredible Mr. Limpet in 1964, Knotts began a five-film contract with Universal Pictures to headline some comedies where his nervous, high-strung, scaredy-cat persona would take center stage. The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, The Shakiest Gun in the West, The Love God?, How to Frame a Figg – and his second Universal comedy, The Reluctant Astronaut

The-Reluctant-Astronaut-1967-film-poster-Don-Knotts-comedyIf you’re a Knotts fan, then you certainly get plenty of him in this. His 1960s comedies were designed to be a showcase for his unique comedic style and personality. To be a success, the Knotts character has to be placed in some incredibly awkward predicaments so he can stammer, shake, his eyes bulging out and when somehow it looks like he accomplished the task, pump out his chest and act like a big shot, and then most likely faint when no one is looking.

Being strapped into the seat of a rocket is a perfect scenario for that Knotts behavior. And with the popularity of the ‘Space Race’ that gripped the country at the time, it seemed like an obvious setting to place Knotts.

The story of The Reluctant Astronaut is paper thin. Really, all the confusion could be explained and problem solved in one breath, but it must remain intact just so Knotts is forced to put on a space helmet. It’s not really highbrow humor either. You don’t need a telescope to see the jokes coming and the writing isn’t very sharp.

It is interesting to see some famed character actors pop up and a young Leslie Nielsen as an actual astronaut who takes Roy under his wing. It’s always odd when I see the younger, pre-Airplane Nielsen who was a long ways from his second career as a funny man. If The Reluctant Astronaut was made a few decades later it could have been a buddy comedy with Knotts and Nielsen.

Don-Knotts-Leslie-Nielsen-The-Reluctant-Astronaut-1967-comedyHowever, the supporting actors are all mainly meant to back up Knotts and not interrupt his comedic chops. They don’t get to offer much on their own. The supposed romantic subplot of Roy trying to win the heart of Ellie (Joan Freeman) is so inconsequential and barely given any time, they probably should dropped it entirely. 

The Reluctant Astronaut is not a great comedy. There are a few chuckles. Like the ongoing joke of how Knotts takes a bus rather than getting on a plane. Him opening the door to the centrifuge room and the wind from it nearly knocking him down and making papers fly all over the place. Predictable stuff. 

After trying to act like he’s the heroic astronaut in front of his visiting father, slipping on a suit, talking a big game, taking a ride on a rocket sled, then ultimately getting found out he’s just a lowly janitor, he’s recruited to really go up into space. In order to show the Russians how great their tech is, NASA decides to put someone in space who is completely unqualified – and guess who fits the bill!

Don-Knotts-in-The-Reluctant-Astronaut-1967-space-comedyWhile in space you get exactly what you would expect. Knotts floating around, obviously hanging by wires. It’s really not much of a knee-slapping climax other than that.

The film looks rather cheap. The stock footage of rockets, NASA facilities and stock footage stands out, you can’t miss them! They’re really the only thing that gives the movie any kind of scale or helps make sense of what is meant to be happening with all the zany space antics. If they didn’t have that stock footage of a real rocket sled zipping down the track, you’d think Knotts just got on a rollercoaster when they cut to him in front of the unconvincing rear projection. Then you have the backlot of Universal being Roy’s hometown. One could easily mistake this movie as a cheap TV movie.

The timing wasn’t too good for the release of The Reluctant Astronaut. After having the cooperation of NASA for the film, the Apollo 1 accident occurred that killed three astronauts the week of the films release. With that tragedy making headlines, suddenly an astronaut comedy didn’t seem that appropriate. Still Knotts fans and plenty of children went to see it.

It’s far from a classic. There’s no part of me that feels it was a film I just had to watch one day. Watching it now it’s a quaint, innocent, kiddie fare type of comedy with a fun bouncy theme tune. It’s harmless fluff. It’s no wonder little kids were drawn to go see the newest Knotts comedy on a Saturday afternoon in 1967. “The funny guy Don Knotts rides in a rocket ship! We have to see this!” I bet plenty of them thought The Reluctant Astronaut was the greatest movie they ever saw back then. 

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