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 several such examples, and we suspect they will mean that you never watch the scenes in question in the same way ever again!
36. “Yippee ki-yay motherf…” – Die Hard
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.
35. The party scene – Ghostbusters
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. Bill Murray is known to have thrown out the bulk of his lines from the Ghostbusters script, but perhaps the heaviest ad-libber on-set was Rick Moranis, playing Louis Tully.
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.
34. The Old Time Rock N’ Roll dance – Risky Business
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!
33. “Funny how?” – Goodfellas
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.
32. “Here’s Johnny!” – The Shining
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.
31. “I know” – The Empire Strikes Back
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.
30. Hannibal mocks Clarice’s accent – The Silence of the Lambs
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.
29. “You talking to me?” – Taxi Driver
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.
28. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” – Jaws
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.
27. “I’ll have the Cream of Sum Yung Guy” – Wayne’s World
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.
26. Dennis Hopper’s entire performance – Apocalypse Now
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.
25. “You hear that?” – Reservoir Dogs
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.
24. “Ain’t it cool?” – Broken Arrow
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.
23. “I’m ready for the big ride, baby!” – Face/Off
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.
22. “You can’t handle the truth!” – A Few Good Men
Even if you’ve never seen the 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).
21. “I’m walkin’ here!” – Midnight Cowboy
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.
20. “I’ll have what she’s having” – When Harry Met Sally…
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.
19. “Alright, alright, alright” – Dazed and Confused
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.
18. The Borgias speech – The Third Man
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.”
17. “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid” – Casablanca
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.
16. “I don’t want to go” – Avengers: Infinity War
Avengers: Infinity War is a movie that was set-up and planned over a whole decade, with easter eggs being carefully woven through and hints about where the story was going being subtly dropped. The whole thing was meticulously figured out, but that doesn’t mean there was no room for improvisation.
In fact, one of the most heartbreaking moments of the whole film wasn’t actually in the script, and that was Spider-Man’s gut-wrenching “I don’t want to go.” The director only told Tom Holland to act like he was afraid to stay on Earth, and all of his lines and emotions were completely improvised in the moment.
15. “What exactly is the function of a rubber duck?” – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
The broad outline of every Harry Potter movie was set in stone before the scriptwriter even set pen to paper, thanks to the books being written slightly ahead of the films. That meant that most of the plot beats couldn’t be messed with, but that there was a lot of room to play around from scene to scene.
While the later films got pretty dark, the first couple were aimed at a much younger audience with a much more comedic tone. One clear example of this was Arthur Weasely’s complete fascination with non-magic people, leading him to ask about the function of a rubber duck when he first meets Harry. However, that was only one urgent question he had for the muggle, as over 20 takes he asked 20 different things.
14. Wonka’s entrance – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a wild ride from beginning to end, filled with surreal moments that blend childlike joy with out and out horror. There are many contenders for the weirdest moment, from the terrifying tunnel boat ride to the dangerously delicious chocolate river, but nothing beats the first time we meet Willy Wonka himself.
In this iconic scene, Willy Wonka hobbles towards the camera in complete silence, before looking like he’s going to topple forward and fall. Instead of falling though, he does a perfect somersault onto his feet, leaving everybody in shock. The reason they look so shocked is that nobody knew Gene Wilder would do that, since he improvised it in order to keep the other actors wary of him.
13. “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli” – The Godfather
The Godfather is another movie that true fans know by heart, and can probably recite from beginning to end. It’s got plenty of memorable lines that were there from the beginning, but the one that has become the most recognisable in pop culture was actually completely improvised.
The truth is, the brilliant “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli”, was originally just “Leave the gun.”, and it wasn’t even supposed to be a comedic moment. The actor delivered the revised version just to see his co-star’s reaction, and the director loved it so much that cutting it was out of the question.
12. “I’ve been impaled” – Frozen
Animated movies, especially Disney animated movies, have a long history of improvisation, especially when it comes to the comedic roles. In both Mulan, Aladdin and Frozen, Disney just put their comedic actors in a voice booth and asked them to riff, animating only the best lines to create a believable character.
It’s hard to say how much of Josh Gad’s Olaf is improvised in the final version of the movie, but one line we can confirm was improv was the adorable (and a little bit macabre) “Oh look. I’ve been impaled”.
11. The chest-waxing scene – The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Whenever you make a star vehicle movie for a popular comedian, there’s bound to be a lot of improvisation, so it’s not surprising that many of Steve Carell’s lines were just the actor reacting in real time.
This moment is a two-fold improv moment, since he didn’t know he was going to be waxing his chest for real, and he had to find some pretty inventive ways to keep from cursing.
10. “I’m above average” – Wonder Woman
Between the huge budgets, immense amounts of intricate CGI, complex connected universe and established canon, it can be hard to find places to improvise in today’s superhero movies. However, Wonder Woman was a brand new venture for DC as well as being the first instalment in the Wonder Woman series, so there was at least some room to play.
Most of that playing came from Chris Pine, who jokingly answered every one of Diana’s questions about human men as flirtily as possible. Even Gal Gadot encouraged this, setting up her own improvised dialogue so that Pine could hit the punchlines back at her.
8. The most annoying sound in the world – Dumb and Dumber
Dumb and Dumber is another movie that relies on the immense comedic talent of its actors, in this case, Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels. These two actors are famed for their huge and over-the-top personalities, as well as their ability to riff on a dime, so it’s not surprising that there was a lot of improvisation in the movie they made together.
Many of the jokes were made on the cuff, but the most famous is definitely the “most annoying sound in the world” scene. Both the setup and pay off were completely improvised, with the two actors working together to create a noise that the other actor in the scene struggled not to break down laughing at.
7. What Emily Blunt wants to hear – The Devil Wears Prada
The Devil Wears Prada is a movie with a tight script, and dry humour that relies a lot on the actors’ specific delivery. That limits the opportunity in the script for improvisation, but there were a couple of moments that came from the actors themselves.
Specifically, Emily Blunt’s sassy “I’m hearing a lot of this, when I want to be hearing a lot of this” retort was something she’d heard an exasperated mother say to her child while the two of them were out shopping, and she just knew she had to use it for her own character.
6. “What hump?” – Young Frankenstein
Young Frankenstein might be based on one of the most classic horror movies of all time, but the film itself is actually a comedy, starring comedic greats Marty Feldman and Gene Wilder. The two riff a bunch on the classic monster movie set-up, with one running gag including Igor’s hump switching from side to side between takes.
In one hilarious gag, Gene Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein mentions the hump, only for Feldman’s character to pretend to notice it for the very first time, asking innocently: “What hump?”
5. Aragorn’s scream – The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring
Lord Of The Rings is one of the most intricate and epic movie series’ of all time, with huge set pieces, complex motivations and very specific, straight from the book, dialogue. Essentially, it’s the kind of movie that’s pretty hard to find room to improvise within, and the improv that did happen was super accidental.
Essentially, in a scene where Aragorn was supposed to kick a rock out of frustration, the actor way overdid it and shattered his toe in the process. This led him to let out an agonising scream that was way more intense than he would have gone for otherwise, but it ended up being the perfect take that was used in the final product.
4. “She talks in her sleep” – Indiana Jones
Harison Ford seems to be drawn to movies with the potential room to play around with dialogue, and several of Indiana Jones’ most iconic moments were born out of necessity or just invented on the fly. This particular one wasn’t Ford’s own however, it was his co-star’s.
The set-up scenario for this moment was Ford asking how Sean Connery’s character knew the villainous woman was a Nazi, and Connery smoothly improvised “she talked in her sleep” as a response. The whole set burst into laughter, and the line was kept.
3. The secret whisper – Lost In Translation
Lost In Translation is a movie all about two character’s inability to communicate with each other, so it’s not exactly the kind of film that you’d expect to include a bunch of off the cuff jokes and lines. There was one improvised moment however, and it was pivotal to the overall meaning of the film.
Right at the end of the movie, the two characters are supposed to wordlessly hold hands, implying that the two care about each other even if they can’t communicate. Instead, Murray whispered into Johansson’s ear, and both actors have refused to ever reveal what was said.
2. The tears in rain monologue – Blade Runner
Blade Runner is a film that’s been revered for a whole bunch of things, from the excellent score to the visual design that was way ahead of its time. Most of all though, it is Rutger Hauer’s performance as the villainous but sympathetic character Roy Batty that sticks in people’s minds.
Hauer was given a monologue to perform just before his death, but the actor rewrote, improvised and completely altered the speech without telling anyone he was going to, to devastating effect. Everyone on set, including the other actors, were moved to tears – and there was no question about which version of the speech to use.
1. “I didn’t know you could read” – Harry Potter
Many improvised moments are brought about because the actor wants to make the scene funnier, or because they think their character would act in a different, more surprising, way. However, sometimes there’s a way more mundane explanation for the choice: someone forgetting their lines.
That’s what happened to Tom Felton in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, with Felton being fed the line “for reading” when he asked why Goyle was wearing glasses. Felton completely forgot what he was supposed to say, and threw out the hilarious “I didn’t know you could read” just so they wouldn’t have to end the take.