The Reluctant Astronaut
VIDEO of The Reluctant Astronaut – Don Knotts, Leslie Nielsen, Joan Freeman
|The Reluctant Astronaut|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Edward J. Montagne, Jr.|
|Produced by||Edward J. Montagne, Jr.|
|Written by||James Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum|
|Music by||Vic Mizzy|
|Edited by||Sam E. Waxman|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Box office||$1,500,000 (US/ Canada)|
The Reluctant Astronaut (1967) is a Universal Pictures feature film produced and directed by Edward Montagne and starring Don Knotts in a story about a carnival ride operator who is hired as a janitor at the Manned Spacecraft Center inHouston and is eventually sent into space.
Comedian Knotts had won several Emmy Awards as small-town comic sheriff’s deputy Barney Fife in the 1960-1968 television sitcom The Andy Griffith Show but left the show as a regular at the end of its fifth season (1964–1965) to pursue a career in feature films with Universal Pictures. The Reluctant Astronaut followed Knotts’ first Universal film venture, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966). Actor Paul Hartman appears in the film and would later star in The Andy Griffith Show. The film’s screenplay writers Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum had served as teleplay writers for the television series.
Roy Fleming (Don Knotts) is fairground operator of a kiddie-spaceship ride in Sweetwater, Missouri. Despite being 35 years old, he still lives with his parents and suffers from extreme acrophobia (fear of heights). His father Arbuckle (Arthur O’Connell) wants better things for his son, so he sends an application to NASA. Roy later learns from his mother (Jeanette Nolan) that NASA has accepted him as a “WB-1074”.
When Roy arrives at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, supervisor Donelli (Jesse White) places him in training as a janitor. Roy accepts the disappointment and unsuccessfully tries to explain things to his family back home, who believe that he is an astronaut. Meanwhile, he is befriended by veteran astronaut Major Fred Gifford (Leslie Nielsen). One day, Roy is alarmed to discover that his father and his friends, Plank (Frank McGrath) and Rush (Paul Hartman) are paying him a surprise visit at work. Anxious to please his domineering father, he dons a space suit and pretends to be an astronaut. Arbuckle, a World War I veteran, tells his friends, “he is proud Roy is now serving his nation.” After wreaking general havoc on the simulators and other hardware, Roy is exposed as a janitor by Donelli and summarily fired in the presence of his father.
When the Russians plan to trump NASA by sending a dentist into space, NASA moves quickly. Roy is found in a bar, rehired, and selected as the man least likely to venture into space and sent aloft. His father watches on TV, convinced the janitor story was a ploy for security reasons. During some eating experiments, Roy gets peanut butter into the guidance system and is in danger of being marooned in space. He remembers the retro rockets from his role as “Mr. Spaceman” on the amusement park ride and launches them, bringing the capsule safely home. Roy is hailed as a hero, and marries his sweetheart Ellie Jackson (Joan Freeman).
- Don Knotts as kiddie-ride operator Roy Fleming
- Joan Freeman as Roy’s girlfriend Ellie Jackson
- Arthur O’Connell as Roy’s father Buck Fleming
- Frank McGrath as Buck’s friend Plank
- Paul Hartman as Buck’s friend Rush
- Jeanette Nolan as Roy’s mother Mrs. Fleming
- Leslie Nielsen as Major Fred Gifford
- Robert F. Simon as Cervantes
- Jesse White as Space Center janitorial supervisor Donelli [N 1]
Although the majority of The Reluctant Astronaut was photographed at Universal Studios, Stage 30, location shooting at Johnson and Kennedy Space Centers, along with stock footage of real spacecraft was spliced into the film. The “Kiddieland” carnival scenes at the beginning of the film were filmed at the Universal Studios Courthouse Square, Backlot, Universal City, California. Filming was completed on September 26, 1966.
If you look carefully at the scenes in which Don Knotts (with the name F. Gifford on it) is wearing a space suit, the US Flag on the shoulder has only 48 Stars. Of course by this time the flag had 50 stars.
The Reluctant Astronaut had its premiere on January 25, 1967 at Houston, Texas, just two days before the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts. According to Knotts’ 1998 autobiography, the infamous Apollo 1 fire led to Universal Pictures being skeptical about releasing a comedy on space travel so soon after the tragedy. Not as popular as his first film ventures, The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964) and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), due to its connection to the Apollo program, The Reluctant Astronaut still was a popular children’s film and was frequently shown on weekend afternoons.
Knotts was nominated for the 1967 Golden Laurel Male Comedy Performance Award for his role in The Reluctant Astronaut. For the benefits in publicity for their programs, NASA also named Knotts, an “Honorary Recruiter”. The “Reluctant Astro-Nut” ice cream was introduced by Baskin-Robbins to promote the film.
- Tom Knotts, Don’s son, played one of the children (uncredited) in the “Kiddieland” carnival scene.
- Cox, Stephen and Kevin Marhanka. The Incredible Mr. Don Knotts: An Eye-Popping Look at His Movies. Nashville, Tennessee: Cumberland House Publishing, 2008. ISBN 978-1-58182-658-6.