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The story behind the greatest ad-lib line in cinematic history

Ad-lib lines are some of the most golden moments in cinema. To know that, amidst all of the high-budget and high-intensity workings of a Hollywood film set, there are still moments of spontaneous artistic creativity that are usually heartening and, usually, makes for the most genuine moments of the film. Sometimes, they can be clever or funny or capture the character’s personality brilliantly and, sometimes, they can be all of those at once. We’re taking a look back at the greatest ad-lib line in cinematic history take from Midnight Cowboy.

Released in 1960 Midnight Cowboy is a landmark film. A somewhat dim-witted male sex worker from Texas, played by Jon Voight, acts as the titular Midnight Cowboy in the story, both hoodwinked and hustled by New York charlatan Dustin Hoffman. It’s a piece of cinema that deserves redefinition and revisiting. Not only is it a sincere and searing piece of work but it also became the first-ever X-rated film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It also provided studios throughout Hollywood to revisit their definitions of what was considered ‘commercial’ — the film made $40 million with a budget of only $3 million). But, that’s not why we’re here.

No, we’re looking back at one scene in particular, which will go down in pop culture history. The scene pictures Voight and Hoffman walking down a busy New York street. Without much in the way of filming permission, and even littler still in the way of blockades and barricades from the NYC public, the scene sees both men striding down the street steeped in conversation.

As they approach the road to cross over to the next block, Hoffman and Voight are very nearly, and very literally, run down by a classic yellow cab. Dressed in a white suit, Hoffman bangs his hand on the bonnet of the bemused cabbie and proclaims “Hey, I’m walkin’ here!” It was a moment of real fury that was completely improvised.

“It was a low-budget movie,” recalled Hoffman of the experience. “Nobody wanted to make this movie, Midnight Cowboy. People walked out during previews; it was considered filthy in 1969. Very low budget. Consequently, on Sixth Avenue, there was no money to stack it with extras. So it’s what they call a stolen shot. We have radio mikes on, the van is across the street, we rehearse it by ourselves. You know, the director [John Schlesinger], me and [Jon] Voight. And we would have to do this dialogue walking.”

It was a complicated move too and involved not only some really clever timing but a heavy dose of patience too. “The hidden camera across the street would go with us, but we couldn’t stop the signal, so we had to reach the dialogue at a certain point so we wouldn’t have to stop. It would have to be turning green when we hit it. So we rehearsed it ourselves and we finally got — oh, so we’ll start this far back, then we’ll do this pace and then we’ll get there when it just hits green — perfect — and we can just continue.”

And we do it, and the first take a cab jumps the light … I wound up saying, ‘I’m walkin’ here!’ But what was going through my head is: ‘Hey, we’re makin’ a movie here! And you just f–ked this shot up.’ But somehow something told me you’d better keep it within the character.”

Hoffman expertly demonstrates everything that is great about ad-lib line sin one fell swoop. Not only is this moment funny, not only did it highlight the cleverness of Hoffman as an actor and illuminate his character a little further but it has since become a part of our lexicon. In fact, we’d bet that most people who know that phrase have very little clue where it came from. That is perhaps the greatest compliment of all, without so much of a second guess, Hoffman created one of the greatest lines in cinematic history and it came straight from the top of his head.