Don Knotts is best known for starring in two legendary television shows. He played shy and nervous Deputy Barney Fife in The Andy Griffith Show and then nervous and wacky landlord Ralph Furley in Three’s Company. But in between these show Knotts turned to the silver screen for several memorable comedies, three of which had a genre film edge to them. This week in From the Vault we take a look at three classic films from the lovable Don Knotts.
The Incredible Mr. Limpet
Warner Bros. 1964
Cast: Don Knotts, Carole Cook, Jack Weston
Running Time: 102 Minutes
The Incredible Mr. Limpet combines live action and animation. Knotts is the fish loving Henry Limpet who attempts to join the Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor. While his friend George (Weston) is accepted, Henry is rejected for military service. A distraught Henry wanders a pier on Coney Island and falls into the ocean where he miraculously turns into a fish. The fish still looks like Henry, glasses and all as these segments are animated.
Still wishing to help the war effort, Limpet befriends a hermit crab named Crusty and eventually tracks down his friend George. Limpet is able to still talk and he gets commissioned into the Navy and helps the Atlantic fleet track down German U-Boats. Henry ends up becoming a war hero and even gets the girl in the end…a lovely Ladyfish!
Paul Frees, the great voice actor known for so many animation role voices the hermit crab. The animated segments were directed by legendary Warner Bros. Animator Robert McKimson who created characters such as Foghorn Leghorn, the Tasmanian Devil, and Speedy Gonzalez. The film was just released on blu-ray in 2012 and looks fantastic. This is a wonderful and charming film for the family.
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken
Universal Pictures 1966
Cast: Don Knotts, Dick Sargent, Joan Staley
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Knotts is Luther Heggs, a typesetter for a small town newspaper who longs to become a reporter. Luther is finally given his chance when his editor assigns him to spend a night in the Simmons mansion on the 20th anniversary of a grisly murder/suicide. Not long after arriving in the old, abandoned mansion Luther begins to experience all sorts of ghostly happenings including an old organ with blood-stained keys that plays by itself, secret panels that open and close, and a painting of Mrs. Simmons with garden shears in stuck in her throat and dripping blood. Terrifying imagery for the time, especially since this was considered a family film.
The town is in an uproar and Luther is celebrated as a hero but when he returns to the house to prove his story with the police, a judge, and several townspeople, nothing happens. Luther is made to look like a fool but when the rest of the people leave, the weirdness starts up again and Luther has to save his girlfriend Alma from the real murderer who has remained unrevealed for 20 years.
This film scared the daylights out of me as a kid, especially when the organ would play that creepy, off kilter dirge. Knotts gives his best theatrical performance as the timid, yet ultimately heroic Luther Heggs. There’s some genuinely scary scenes and its damn funny to boot. The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is one of the best horror/comedies of all time.
The Reluctant Astronaut
Universal Pictures 1967
Cast: Don Knotts, Leslie Nielsen
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Knotts plays his usual role as a Roy Fleming, a shy, timid, kiddie ride operator at an amusement park that still lives with his parents. His father wants more for him and submits an application to NASA. Incredibly, Roy is hired—as a janitor! Roy makes friends with a real astronaut played by Leslie Nielsen and his father believes he is an astronaut as well.
But when his father comes to visit Roy attempts to fool his dad by using the various simulators causing general mayhem and ends up getting fired. When the Russians attempt to beat the U.S. in a space race by sending a dentist into orbit, NASA rehires Roy (as he is even less likely to go into space than a dentist). Roy is sent into orbit but of course screws up again and appears to be hopelessly marooned. But Roy, remembering his days of running a kiddie space ride, fires off the retro rockets and returns safely home and hailed as a hero.
As hard as it may be to believe, the plot of The Reluctant Astronaut is even more ridiculous than The Incredible Mr. Limpet. But silly is a hallmark of Don Knotts’ work and there are few actors who could pull off a role like this. Good fun!
Tim Janson is a columnist and reviewer for Mania Entertainment. He writes Level Up, the weekly look at videogames and the horror dedicated column, Tuesday Terrors. Tim has written for Fangoria, Newsarama, City Slab Magazine, Twitch Film, and Cinefantastique. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA). Be sure to follow him on Facebook and Twitter.