20 Classic Movie Moments That Were Completely Improvised
Some classic movie scenes are so etched into our memories that we simply cannot separate them from the movie they appeared in.
So it may shock you to find out that some of the best-known cinematic moments came not from the screenplay, but were actually improvised.
Below are 20 such examples, and we suspect they will mean that you never watch the scenes in question in the same way ever again!
20. Die Hard: “Yippee ki-yay motherf…”
When Bruce Willis was cast as John McClane in 1988’s Die Hard, he’d never made an action movie.
Best known for his roles in TV comedy Moonlighting and a series of Seagrams Wine Coolers commercials, the actor’s forte at the time was cracking wise, rather than cracking skulls.
Thankfully, the role of McClane called for a lot of smart-mouthed tomfoolery, and Willis was allowed to throw in plenty of ad-libs – the most famous of which is, of course, “Yippee ki-yay, motherf***er.”
In the script, though, the line read “Yippee ki-yay, a**hole.” Willis changed it simply in order to make the crew laugh, and never expected it to make the finished movie.
Instead, it became McClane’s catchphrase, destined to be repeated in every Die Hard sequel – aside from the PG-13 rated fourth instalment, which censors the dreaded F-bomb with the sound of a gunshot.
19. Ghostbusters: the party scene
Comedy stars and improvisation go together like peanut butter and jelly – put a comedian on a movie set and there’s no way they’re not going to throw in some ad-libs.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that 1984’s Ghostbusters had a whole lot of ad-libbing going on, given that several key cast members were veterans of TV comedy Saturday Night Live.
Louis was originally written with John Candy in mind, and when Moranis took the role he suggested making the character an uptight tax attorney.
In the scene in which Louis hosts a party at his apartment, almost every line Moranis utters is improvised – an impressive feat, given how verbose the character is.
18. Risky Business: Old Time Rock N’ Roll dance
1983’s Risky Business was the fifth film role, and first lead, of ambitious 21-year-old actor Tom Cruise.
The actor was keen to make an impression in writer-director Paul Brickman’s edgy teen movie, and it’s safe to say he succeeded.
Demonstrating his audience-pleasing instincts early on, Cruise himself came up with what became Risky Business’ most iconic moment.
The famous dance scene, in which his character Joel, clad only socks and shirt, dances and lip-syncs to the song Old Time Rock N’ Roll, was completely improvised by Cruise.
The script simply instructed Cruise to ‘dance to rock music,’ but he certainly made it into something much more!
17. Goodfellas: “Funny how?”
Joe Pesci won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for gangster classic Goodfellas, and it’s not hard to see why.
In the role of Tommy DeVito, the actor goes from hilarious to terrifying on a dime – never more so than in the famous barroom scene.
The legendary “I’m funny how?” tirade came from Pesci, not the original script, and is based on a true story the actor told his colleagues during rehearsal.
As a younger man, Pesci had worked as a waiter serving members of the mafia, and when one such character asked if he was funny, Pesci made the mistake of replying yes.
Director Martin Scorsese was so taken with this tale, he had Pesci and Ray Liotta improvise the scene in rehearsals, then incorporated it into the film.
16. The Shining: “Here’s Johnny!”
Another ad-libbed moment that scared the living daylights out of audiences everywhere comes courtesy of Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
The 1980 Stephen King adaptation was directed by notorious perfectionist Stanley Kubrick, and the shoot was by all accounts a gruelling experience.
As such, the madness we see in Nicholson’s Jack Torrance may at least in part be genuine, derived from the actor’s frustration at shooting endless retakes of every shot.
Unusually for Kubrick, who meticulously prepared for every moment, the director allowed Nicholson to improvise different lines of dialogue for the moment he hacks open the door with an axe – and “Here’s Johnny!” was the one they ultimately went with in the edit.
Nicholson was simply quoting the catchphrase used to introduce Johnny Carson, host of TV’s The Tonight Show at the time.
15. The Empire Strikes Back: “I know”
In contrast with many of the Star Wars actors who came after him (i.e. everyone in the prequels), Harrison Ford had no qualms about voicing his displeasure with the script on set.
The actor infamously told George Lucas “you can write this s**t but you can’t say it”, in relation to Lucas’ dialogue in the original Star Wars.
As such, part of Ford’s terms for returning in sequel The Empire Strikes Back were that his ideas for the character of Han Solo would be taken on board.
One such contribution came in his climactic scene when, before Han is frozen in carbonite, Carrie Fisher’s Leia says “I love you.”
As scripted, Han’s reply was “I love you too” – but Ford’s improvised response “I know” was so much better, and kept in the film by Lucas and director Irvin Kershner.
14. The Silence of the Lambs: Hannibal mocks Clarice’s accent
Such is the power of Anthony Hopkins’ performance in The Silence of the Lambs, it won him the Best Actor Oscar, despite the fact that his character, Dr Hannibal Lecter, only has 16 minutes of screen time.
Hopkins is an actor who insists on loyalty to the script, so his improvisational addition to The Silence of the Lambs isn’t exactly a deviation from what was written. Instead, it’s all in the delivery.
The moment comes when Lecter, dissecting Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, asks her, “what was your father, dear? Was he a coal miner? Did he stink of the lamp?”
Hopkins deliberately gave those last words a heavy Southern drawl, in mockery of Clarice’s own accent – and the actor did so knowing full well that Foster herself was insecure about the accent she was using in the film.
Foster has revealed that she did not know Hopkins was going to do this, so her horrified reaction in the scene is genuine, as the actress herself felt personally attacked.
13. Taxi Driver: “You talking to me?”
As we’ve seen from Goodfellas, director Martin Scorsese likes to give his actors room to make their own contributions – and Robert De Niro was afforded the same privilege shooting Taxi Driver.
For the scene in which new gun owner Travis Bickle stands in front of a mirror imagining potential gun-toting scenarios, Paul Schrader’s script simply read: ‘Travis talks to himself in the mirror.’
This left De Niro free to come up with his own monologue – and in the process he uttered the words that Taxi Driver has long since become synonymous with.
With Scorsese behind the camera encouraging him to improvise, De Niro made up his classic “You talking to me?” speech on the spot.
Interestingly, while it may seem De Niro repeats “you talking to me?” several times for emphasis, he in fact only did so at Scorsese’s behest, as the director was worried the line might not have been picked up due to background noise.
12. Jaws: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”
One of the most famous lines in movie history – “you’re gonna need a bigger boat” (often misquoted as “we’re gonna need a bigger boat”) – was improvised by Jaws actor Roy Scheider.
In the movie, Scheider’s Chief Brody utters these words when he first sees the infamous great white shark in all its monstrosity – but this was not the first time these words had been spoken on the Jaws set.
According to screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, the line had become an in-joke among the cast and crew, because of their “very stingy” producers David Zanik and Richard Brown.
Gottlieb explains: “everyone kept telling (Zanik and Brown), ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat.’ It became a catchphrase for anytime anything went wrong – if lunch was late or the swells were rocking the camera, someone would say ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat.'”
Scheider had uttered the in-joke in unused takes of various other scenes, but director Steven Spielberg knew that the reveal of the shark was the best time to utilise it.
11. Wayne’s World: “I’ll have the Cream of Sum Yung Guy”
Comedy actors – especially those who’ve been on Saturday Night Live – seem to really like ad-libbing.
Small wonder, then, that when SNL’s Mike Myers and Dana Carvey took their characters Wayne and Garth to the big screen, they were literally making a lot of it up as they went along.
Many of the best lines in 1992’s Wayne’s World were improvised, including Garth asking “Did you ever find Bugs Bunny attractive when he put on a dress and played a girl bunny?”
For our money, though, there’s no ad-libbed line quite so funny (or as unlikely to be allowed in a PG comedy today!) as Wayne’s Chinese food order, “I’ll have the Cream of Sum Yung Guy.”
Myers continued to indulge his improvisational inclinations in the Austin Powers trilogy, of which we suspect the jokes are about 75% ad-libbed.
10. Apocalypse Now – Dennis Hopper’s entire performance
The troubled production of Francis Ford Coppola’s magnum opus Apocalypse Now is as legendary as the film itself.
As written by John Milius, the screenplay was a modernisation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set against the war in Vietnam – but when cameras rolled, a whole lot changed.
For one thing, the character played by Dennis Hopper – one of the highlights of the film, portraying a drugged-out war photographer – wasn’t even in the script.
This means that almost all of Hopper’s lines, including the T.S. Elliot quotes, were improvised by the actor.
Many more Apocalypse Now moments that made it to the screen were unplanned, including when Martin Sheen punches and smashes a real mirror, cutting himself.
9. Reservoir Dogs: “You hear that?”
1992’s Reservoir Dogs was one of the best-received debut movies ever, making an instant icon of writer-director Quentin Tarantino.
The film also features what became a surprising staple of the filmmaker: a dance scene, for which the actors were not given specific direction.
However, while the dance scenes in Pulp Fiction and Death Proof were mostly innocuous, the scene in which Michael Madsen’s Mr Blonde does a little dance became hugely controversial, as it’s part of a gruelling torture sequence.
As directed, Madsen does a few goofy steps in Reservoir Dogs to Stuck in the Middle with You – then lunges on his hapless prey (Kirk Baltz) and, unseen by camera, cuts his ear off.
Madsen’s darkly funny ad-lib – saying “Hey, what’s going on? You hear that?” into the ear he’s just removed – makes the scene all the more blood-curdling.
8. Broken Arrow: “Ain’t it cool?”
1996 action romp Broken Arrow gave a post-Pulp Fiction John Travolta one of his most entertaining roles.
As treacherous fighter pilot Major Vic Deakins, Travolta goes full villain, leaving no piece of scenery unchewed.
One of his most gleefully unhinged lines was improvised by the actor: as Christian Slater’s Riley tells him, “you’re out of your mind,” Travolta’s Deakins replies, “Yeah. Ain’t it cool?”
Director John Woo clearly enjoyed this line, as he made a point of using it again in his next movie, Face/Off.
Notably, Ain’t It Cool News – one of the most popular movie news sites in the early days of the internet – took its name from Travolta’s line.
7. Face/Off: “I’m ready for the big ride, baby!”
As if John Travolta wasn’t showy enough in Broken Arrow, things became even more excessive when the actor reunited with John Woo on 1997’s Face/Off with the even more out-there Nicolas Cage in tow.
This high-octane shoot ’em up sees Travolta and Cage play a high-strung federal agent and a deranged terrorist who switch places, a scenario that naturally allowed both actors ample opportunity to go outrageously over the top with their performances.
One particularly madcap moment sees Agent Sean Archer (Travolta) holding Castor Troy (Cage) at gunpoint, to which Troy suddenly sings, “I’m ready… ready for the big ride, baby!”
If you’ve always wondered what forgotten 80s rock song Cage was singing there, fret no more: there is no such song, Cage just made it up.
Once again, director Woo clearly appreciated this ad-lib, as when Travolta becomes Troy later, we hear him sing the non-existent song once more.
6. A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth!”
Even if you’ve never seen military courtroom drama A Few Good Men, you’ll doubtless still know its most iconic dialogue exchange.
Whilst Tom Cruise’s defence attorney Daniel Kaffee is questioning Jack Nicholson’s grizzled Colonel Nathan Jessup, an impassioned Kaffee roars, “I want the truth!”
To this, Jessup replies, “You already have the truth” – or at least, that’s how it would have played if Nicholson had stuck to the script.
Instead, the seasoned actor gave the far more devastating response: “You can’t handle the truth!”
The performance saw Nicholson get his tenth Academy Award nomination (we can’t feel particularly sorry for him not winning, as he already had two Oscars by that point).
5. Midnight Cowboy: “I’m walkin’ here!”
Speaking of the Academy Awards, 1969’s Midnight Cowboy has long been acknowledged as a watershed moment for the Hollywood establishment accepting that the times were changing.
The provocative low-budget drama took Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars, making it the only X-rated movie to ever do so.
However, as notorious as the film may be for its envelope-pushing content, it’s best remembered for one line from Dustin Hoffman: “I’m walkin’ here!”
Hoffman’s Ratso yells these words while he and Joe Buck (Jon Voight) are crossing a busy New York street, and almost get hit by a cab.
This was an unscripted moment, which director John Schlesinger insisted on putting on film when Hoffman was indeed almost hit by a cab in rehearsal, and – in character as ever – responded accordingly.
4. When Harry Met Sally…: “I’ll have what she’s having”
As much as When Harry Met Sally… became an enduring favourite for the wonderful chemistry between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, the film is best remembered for a line which neither of them deliver.
At the (ahem) climax of that New York deli scene that everyone remembers, an ageing patron tells her waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
The late writer Nora Ephron may have been the queen of the rom-com screenplays, but the line didn’t come from her.
The line was suggested on set by Crystal; director Rob Reiner loved the comedian’s suggestion, and made a point of putting the line into the scene.
And the deli patron who says the improvised line? The director’s own mother, Estelle Reiner.
3. Dazed and Confused: “Alright, alright, alright”
1993’s Dazed and Confused was a major step in the early 90s American independent film scene, announcing that writer-director Richard Linklater was here to stay and introducing a huge crop of talented new actors to boot.
One young up-and-comer who really seized the opportunity to shine, however, was Matthew McConaughey, who – in his first film role – largely steals the show as Wooderson.
Famously, the first words we hear leave Wooderson’s mouth are “alright, alright alright” – and all three of these words were ad-libbed by McConaughey.
As this was also the first scene McConaughey shot, the actor has long since made the words his personal catchphrase, repeating them innumerable times in interviews and personal appearances.
Famously, McConaughey even said “alright, alright, alright” when accepting his Best Actor Oscar for 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club.
2. The Third Man: The Borgias speech
Director Carol Reed’s 1949 film The Third Man is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made in Britain.
It’s perhaps ironic, then, that the main thing everyone remembers about the film is the presence of American star Orson Welles, even though his character Harry Lime is by no means the lead.
Moreover, the short speech Welles memorably gives in his final scene was not part of Graham Greene’s original script.
Welles (reportedly borrowing lines from an obscure Hungarian stage play) remarks, “in Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance.
“In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
1. Casablanca: “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid”
Few age-old classics have endured quite so well as 1942’s romantic drama Casablanca, which overcame a troubled production to win big at the Oscars.
Almost eight decades later, it still holds up as one of the greatest films ever, with iconic central performances from Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine and Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund.
However, Rick’s most famous line to Ilsa – “here’s lookin’ at you, kid” – came not from the screenplay, but Bogart himself.
Bogart reportedly first said the line to Bergman off camera, whilst he was teaching the actress how to play poker.
Bogey’s line struck a chord, and wound up being incorporated into the movie, with Rick saying the line several times throughout the film.