The Reluctant Astronaut

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The Reluctant Astronaut
The Reluctant Astronaut poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byEdward J. Montagne, Jr.
Produced byEdward J. Montagne, Jr.
Screenplay byEverett Greenbaum
Story byJames Fritzell
StarringDon Knotts
Leslie Nielsen
Joan Freeman
Music byVic Mizzy
CinematographyRex Wimpy
Edited bySam E. Waxman
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • June 16, 1967 (1967-06-16)
Running time
103 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$1,500,000 (US/ Canada)[1]

The Reluctant Astronaut is a 1967 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 in Houston 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, expresses pride in his son to his friends. 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).



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.[3] Filming was completed on September 26, 1966.[2]


The Reluctant Astronaut had its premiere on January 25, 1967 at Houston, Texas, just two days before the Apollo 1 tragedy that killed three astronauts at the LC-34 pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS). According to Knotts' 1998 autobiography, the tragic 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.[4] 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.[2]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Tom Knotts, Don's son, played one of the children (uncredited) in the "Kiddieland" carnival scene.[2]


  1. ^ "Big Rental Films of 1967", Variety, 3 January 1968 p 25. Please note these figures refer to rentals accruing to the distributors.
  2. ^ a b c Cox and Marhanka 2008, p. 85.
  3. ^ Cox and Marhanka 2008, p. 80.
  4. ^ "Awards: The Reluctant Astronaut (1967/)" IMDb. Retrieved: October 30, 2014.


  • 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.

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