A kiddie ride astronaut in a small town, Roy Fleming (Don Knotts), might just get an opportunity to participate in a mission in space! Knotts fans should certainly enjoy this more than most. He gets to rely on his facial gifts and physical comedy in order to tickle your funny bone as his reactions to ongoing crises and accumulating problems are the film's main attraction. His "war hero" father, Buck (Arthur O'Connell), spreads the news of his son's inclusion in NASA's space program, although the letter of employment from the government is for a janitorial position! Roy learns that when he gets to Houston, and his demanding boss, Donelli (Jesse White), expects him to sweep, mop, and wax to his highest capability! But when Roy's friends and neighbors (well, Buck's friends and neighbors) becomes so swept up in and obsessively devoted to his "big promotion" (and the notion that he will be headed for space), the enthusiasm for a phony mission begins to overwhelm their hometown hero. A glorified return home where Roy must try and make the town believe he's been in training to be an astronaut, and an eventual greeting from Buck and two of his closest friends at Houston (where Roy must get into character and costume (astronaut suit), while leaving his janitorial post, leading them on a tour of the place) certainly cause the hometown hero a ton of grief.
Fans of Barney Fife will recognize one particular scene all too well: when all the guys are gathered around, Roy embellishes his training with only a kid (who knows a lot about space through programs on television and in school) calling him out as a phony. The swagger and self-flattery are most amusing if you are used to seeing Barney get all puffed up over some development that truly wasn't of any heroism he was responsible for. A majority of the film has Knotts all tied up in knots, as he tries to figure a way out from his predicament
living a lie. The picture with the real astronauts (making it into the hometown paper!) while holding a mop, the tour at Houston which results in mistakes he makes because he doesn't know what he's talking about, and his eventual trip into space (the Russians plan to send up a dentist, so the USA must best them in sending up the least possible candidate for a trip into space!) where if something might could go wrong it does are highlights in this implausible bit of fantasy.
As a vehicle for Knotts, "The Reluctant Astronaut" is ideal as it plays to his strengths. He even gets a very nice-looking romantic love interest in Joan Freeman (who had been elusive to him, eventually coming around). Slasher fans will know Freeman from Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter as she was the mom of Tommy Jarvis (Corey Feldman)! Roy's fear of heights is played up especially when he continues to avoid airplane flights. I do think the film perhaps takes a bit too long to get to Knotts in space (its main draw), but the cast is full of delightful character actors (although, not quite as good as "The Ghost in Mr. Chicken" but close) to accompany the lead comic icon before the finale. Leslie Nielsen could be a surprise for his fans, playing his celebrated astronaut that Knotts befriends and respects totally straight
he is responsible for Knotts' eventual space flight! Some fun use of NASA footage and how Knotts is involved in mishaps involving the space program. Perhaps not his best solo comedy effort, but not bad, either
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