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The Reluctant Astronaut

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The Reluctant Astronaut, starring Don Knotts and Leslie Nielsen
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The Reluctant Astronaut (1967) starring Don Knotts, Leslie Nielsen

 Don Knotts takes his ‘nervous fraidy-cat’ character to outer space (or at least to orbit) in this funny, family-friendly comedy.  The Reluctant Astronaut begins with Roy Fleming (Don Knotts in the title role) appearing to be in a space capsule orbiting the Earth. Until the camera zooms out, and reveals that instead he’s operating a kiddie ride at an amusement park.  Once the ride is over, he leaves the ride (with the help of the actor who played one of the ‘old men’ on the Andy Griffith Show). In order to demonstrate to the audience that Don Knotts’ character has a severe fear of heights.  On his break, he asks one of his fellow employees at the amusement park for a date. And after much begging, she reluctantly agrees.  His normal day at work is interrupted by an urgent call from his mother, causing him to dash home.

Application to NASA?

It turns out that, at the age of 35, Roy Fleming/Don Knotts is still living at home with his mother, and his father. Who’s a World War I veteran who seeks to relive his ‘glory days’ through the life of his son.  To that end, the father has sent in an application to NASA in his son’s name. And to everybody’s surprise, it’s been accepted!  Don Knotts doesn’t want to go, and tries to explain that to his father. But in a very funny scene, the father demonstrates that he doesn’t really listen to his son. Who is soon sent off to NASA.  Don Knotts gets on the plane, but manages to get off without his family’s knowledge. Due to his fear of heights (acrophobia), and rides the bus instead.

Once he finally arrives, he gets a ride to the base from a friendly astronaut, played by Leslie Nielsen.  After a very funny bit where Don Knotts accidentally opens a door that leads to a wind chamber, he makes it to the personnel office. There he meets his supervisor, Donelli (played by Jesse White, who I best remember as playing the ‘Maytag Repairman’ for 20 years). And finds out that he hasn’t been accepted as an astronaut, but as an assistant janitor at NASA!


Don Knotts, parachuting to Earth in "The Reluctant Astronaut"

Roy Fleming/Don Knotts tries to break the news to his father over the phone. But his father’s habit of not listening to his son prevents this from being useful. After a NASA publicity photo is taken with Don Knotts accidentally in the photograph, he decides that enough is enough. He goes home to straighten everything out.  This backfires magnificently, as the entire town is now convinced that he’s a real astronaut.

He finds that everyone treats him with more respect than even before … And his girlfriend literally falls all over him.  It’s a very funny scene, as Don Knotts pushes her on a swing in the back yard. Only to be knocked backward by her into the bushes.  She follows him into the bushes, and the audience hears a ‘slap’. Followed by the girlfriend marching out, followed by Don Knotts, holding his cheek.  Despite the setting, this leads into a romantic moment. The next day she’s part of the ‘family’ wishing him a safe trip back to NASA. Where he again dodges out of the plane and takes the bus.

Back at NASA

Don Knotts in a spacesuit, in orbit, and in over his head as "The Reluctant Astronaut"

Back at NASA, Roy Fleming/Don Knotts is back at work. When he sees his father with two of his friends coming to pay a ‘surprise visit’. And Don Knotts needs to keep up the charade of being an astronaut …. Until he’s unintentionally revealed to be only a janitor.  Everyone leaves, disappointed, but Don Knotts is soon given the chance to become a real astronaut as part of a publicity campaign.

Since the USSR is going to send a dentist into space to prove how safe their missile is, the USA is going to send … a janitor!  This gives Don Knotts a chance for more slapstick as part of his crash course training. When something goes wrong, he has to rely on his ‘training’ from the kiddie ride to make everything right and return home safely, where he’s given a hero’s welcome.  All ends well, and he even marries the girl. Only to again have to take the bus to his honeymoon, since he’s still terrified of heights.

Overall, a very funny Don Knotts film, and well worth watching, especially with your children.

Editorial review of The Reluctant Astronaut starring Don Knotts, Leslie Nielsen, courtesy of

(Editor’s note: Don Knotts’ The Reluctant Astronaut is available as part of the Don Knotts Reluctant Hero 4-Pack) 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, only to find out upon arriving that his job is a janitor, not an astronaut. Anxious to live up to the expectations of his domineering father, Roy manages to keep up a facade of being an astronaut to his family and friends. When NASA decides to launch a lay person into space to prove the worthiness of a new automated spacecraft, Roy gets the chance to confront his fears.

Funny movie quotes from The Reluctant Astronaut starring Don Knotts

[as Mr. Spaceman, operating the Rocket RideRoy Fleming (Don Knotts): We are now passing over the Hawaiian Islands. Our flight plan will carry us to the recovery area 100 miles southeast of the Bahamas. We are starting our retro-rocket countdown: five, four, three, two, one, firing retro rockets!
[presses button making rocket sound]
Roy Fleming (Don Knotts): We will be touching down in twenty minutes.
[whispering] Mary: I have to go to the bathroom.
Roy Fleming (Don Knotts): We have just touched down!


[hands Roy a broom] Donelli (Jesse White): Here you are. Now in the mornings, you sweep all locker area and boiler room. In the afternoons, you wet down and mop. Now the top of the lockers should be kept… clean at all times. They’ll be inspected by me personally daily at 1700 hours. now in the morning when you…
Roy Fleming (Don Knotts): Excuse me sir, uh, is this all sorta like, uh, part of the training program?
Donelli (Jesse White): What training program?
Roy Fleming (Don Knotts): You know, … [imitates rocket] space.
Donelli (Jesse White): THIS is your space: From there, to there, and I expect you to keep it clean Fleming! Now then…
Roy Fleming (Don Knotts): You mean, I-I-I’m a, I’m a janitor?
Donelli (Jesse White): Heheheheheheheeheh! Why of course not! My boy, you are a WB-1074: *apprentice* janitor!

Donelli (Jesse White): Fleming, you’ve been here two weeks now, and I don’t think your mind has been on your work for one second!
Roy Fleming (Don Knotts): Uh, uhm, well to tell you the truth sir, my heart really isn’t in this.
Donelli (Jesse White): We are not interested in your heart, Fleming! We want your elbow grease!

Father & friend visit

[reading sign next to mock up] Rush: “Representation of Lunar Surface”
Buck Fleming: This here, is what your moon looks like.
Rush: Oh…
[steps up onto mock up] Plank: Take a picture of me standin’ on the moon!
Rush: Aw, that ain’t really the moon!
Plank: We don’t have to tell anybody.

Cast of characters

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