By Ty Burr
May 03, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Movie stardom is relative. Here’s proof: When I was 8 years old, and my moviegoing was limited to matinees at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Mass., there was no bigger star in the world to me than Don Knotts.

I’m not saying the guy was a role model. If anything, Knotts was a primordial Pencil Neck: a chinless, horse-lipped, bow-tied, eye-popping nervous Nellie whose scrawny arms flailed at the drop of a straw hat. He was so thoroughly a character, in other words, that he possessed a fluky purity. Most people know him as Deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show (for which he won five Emmys) or landlord Ralph Furley on Three’s Company, but if you’re the right age, the three Knotts movies debuting this week on tape are the home-video equivalent of Proustian madeleines.

That said, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, The Reluctant Astronaut, and The Love God? are pretty stale madeleines. Knotts’ amiable genius was more for comic persona than comic invention, and the movies cobbled around him are hopelessly formulaic feature-length sitcoms. Ghost scared me silly back in 1966, but today’s Goosebumps crowd would laugh it right out of the VCR. Astronaut has little to recommend it except a pre-irony Leslie Nielsen as costar. Only The Love God?, in which Knotts becomes a Hugh Hefner-style smut publisher, offers any real laughs, not to mention a rock montage that’s a small marvel of ’60s kitsch.

Ah, well. Perhaps a Don Knotts movie is an experience best shared with peers, which in this case means 8-year-old boys hopped up on root beer and Good & Plentys. Still, these videos prompted the thought that ol’ Don might be ripe for rediscovery. Can’t you see him playing Steve Buscemi’s psychotic grandpa in the next Tarantino movie?
Ghost: C-
Astronaut: C-
Love God: C+

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 97 minutes
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