“The improv, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but when it does, it’s like open–field running.” – Robin Williams
It is difficult to come up with a general approach to any art form, some prefer organising their ideas and some believe in letting artistic inspiration grab them spontaneously. The moments listed below are examples of the latter, iconic scenes which were improvised by masters of their craft. Never written down in scripts, they were exclusively formed in the minds of the actors who had a better sense of how to contribute to the film.
The late actor Robin Williams was known for his brilliant improvisation. He once said, “I like the discipline. Years ago, I was doing The World According to Garp, and I improvised. And I started off just improvising like crazy, and George Roy Hill made a face like a weasel in a wind tunnel, and then I went, ‘Not good?’ And he went … ‘Just say the words.’ And it really helped to focus, [to] put all of [myself] into that. And also [be] freed up by that and find the behaviour with that.”
He added, “Occasionally you can improvise — use that as a base and go off from it. But if a script is well-written, you really don’t have to. Like with Good Will Hunting — [there was] very little riffing there, because it was such a precise piece that you didn’t need to.”
Here, with the words of the great Robin Williams ringing in our ears, we take a look at some of the most iconic moments in film history that are still remembered for their unscripted brilliance.
The best improvised lines in film history:
The Fugitive (Andrew Davis – 1993)
This iconic scene, in truth, was a result of an eminent actor forgetting his lines.
When Ford’s character was running from the authorities because he was being chased for a crime he did not commit. At a tense moment, Ford screams out that he never killed his wife. To that Tommy Lee Jones (Deputy Marshal) could not recall the scripted line and responded, “That isn’t my problem,” instead of, “I don’t care” and changed the completion of the film’s character.
Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger – 1969)
It is hard to tell that this perfect line from Midnight Cowboy was unscripted.
During the shoot, a taxi driver didn’t realise it was a live set and missed the signs warning about the shoot. As a result, both Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight almost got hit by the taxi! That’s exactly why Dustin Hoffman shouted out, “I’m walking here!”
Ghost (Jerry Zucker – 1990)
Whoopi Goldberg’s Academy Award-winning performance in Ghost is fondly remembered by fans. The romantic fantasy thriller, which was directed by Jerry Zucker, tells the story of an endangered woman and the ghost of her murdered lover.
Goldberg, who plays the psychic that Molly (Demi Moore) uses to initiate contact her dead lover Sam (Patrick Swayze), is responsible for going off script. While talking about Sam’s killer, Goldberg improvised the iconic line “Molly, you in trouble, girl!”.
A Few Good Men (Rob Reiner – 1992)
Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men had a star-studded cast, including Demi Moore, Tom Cruise, Kevin Bacon and the legendary Jack Nicholson.
The film has a lot of memorable scenes but one particular line from Colonel Nathan R. Jessup (played by Jack Nicholson) stands out because of its unscripted nature. This actor invented his response to the court order of telling the truth with the famous line, “You can’t handle the truth!”
When Harry Met Sally (Rob Reiner – 1989)
Another cult classic from Rob Reiner, When Harry Met Sally has one scene where Harry (Billy Crystal) tells Sally (Meg Ryan) the following, “I would be proud to partake of your pecan pie.”
It was later discovered that the line was not part of Nora Ephron’s original script. However, Meg Ryan cracked up and actually, director Reiner loved the improvisation too.
The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan – 2008)
Heath Ledger’s method acting for the role of the Joker in The Dark Knight has gone down as one of the most iconic performances in film history.
Ledger didn’t exactly improvise a line but he defined the entire scene with a powerful gesture. When he heard about Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) getting promoted, Ledger began a slow and sarcastic clap all on his own accord.
Deliverance (John Boorman – 1972)
Deliverance features Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox as characters who get attacked by violent hillbillies in the deep woods of Georgia.
The most intense scene of the film is the one where the four of them get surrounded by the wild and aggressive hicks. One of them yells out, “Squeal like a pig,” and Bobby (Ned Beatty) obeys. It is not confirmed who came up with this line but it is safe to say that the line became a fan-favourite.
Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant – 1997)
Robin Williams plays a pivotal role as a psychology professor who is the only one able to get through to the troubled genius (played by Matt Damon) in this beloved cult classic. The film provides a platform for Williams to deliver one of his most sensitive dramatic performances.
Near the end of the movie, Williams reads out a letter that Damon’s character wrote to him. In it, it reads, “I had to go see about a girl.” Then, Williams himself improvised his witty retort, “Son of a bitch! He stole my line!”
Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze – 1999)
A lot of crazy things happen in this 1999 Spike Jonze-Charlie Kaufman collaboration.
During one scene, an inebriated extra chucked a can directly at John Malkovich’s head and even screamed, “Hey, Malkovich! Think fast!” and, watching how the entire thing went down, Jonze liked the chaotic occurrence and kept it in the final cut.
The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer – 1995)
Bryan Singer is one of those directors who like to stick to the script but there is one iconic scene from The Usual Suspects in which Singer allowed them complete freedom.
The line up scene was completely improvised, even the part where someone farted and then the officer told Del Toro, “in English please”.
Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese – 1990)
Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece boasted of brilliant performances from the likes of Lorraine Bracco, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and of course, Joe Pesci.
The best improvisation came from Pesci in the role of Tommy. During this iconic scene, Tommy was infuriated that he got called a ‘funny guy’. Then, Joe Pesci invented his famous line, “Do I amuse you?”
The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme – 1991)
Anthony Hopkins on-screen persona has been defined by his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs. A lot of his character’s psychological ticks were invented by the actor himself.
The moment when he tells Jodie Foster’s character about eating human liver with, ‘fava beans and a nice Chianti’ is evidence of his improvisation skills. While they rehearsed that scene, Anthony Hopkins came up with that frightening hiss.
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese – 1976)
This iconic scene should not come as a surprise to anyone, the one in which Robert De Niro’s character famously asks, “You talkin’ to me?” – That line was not in the script at all.
In fact, the script only instructed De Niro to look in the mirror: “Bickle speaks to himself in the mirror.” However, Martin Scorsese let De Niro take control of his character.
The Warriors (Walter Hill – 1979)
David Patrick Kelly is fantastic as Luther in The Warriors.
Somewhat remarkably, the famous line, “Warriors, come out to play!” was never part of the script. Kelly not only invented that line but repeated it again when he decided to claw three bottles in his hand. The director loved it enough to keep it in the final cut.
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola – 1979)
Marlon Brando was difficult to work with on the set of Apocalypse Now, repeatedly going off-script in extreme ways. He famously used method acting and even adopted character quirks in his real life.
While acting as Colonel Kurtz, Brando simply refused to learn his character’s lines and he even jokingly put his script on his head like a paper hat. He also did not read the source material Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness despite being requested by Coppola. By the end of the film, he had improvised close to 18 minutes of Colonel Kurtz’ dialogue.
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott – 1982)
Although Harrison Ford is the star of this seminal sci-fi film, his co-star Rutger Hauer steals the show in this particular scene.
During the final moments of Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer initially did not stray from the original script, but then he chose to deviate. Soon, his speech became the now famous ‘tears of rain’ speech, which was totally improvised.
Jaws (Steven Spielberg –1975)
Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is probably one of the most influential works when it comes to shaping the sensibilities of popular culture.
The iconic ad-lib moment comes when Roy Scheider, who played Chief Martin Brody, improvised the ominous line he tells the Orca crew, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven – 1987)
When Kurtwood Smith approached Paul Verhoeven about improvising a line, the director did not tell the rest of the cast about it to capture genuine reactions.
Both Smith and his director chose to surprise the cast during the scene where Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) was taken by the police after RoboCop beat Boddicker. So when Kurtwood Smith shouts out, “Give me my fuckin’ phone call,” the entire cast was actually in shock.
A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick – 1971)
This iconic and disturbing moment was a result of a perfectionist like Kubrick being frustrated by not getting the results he was looking for. It happened while filming the scene in A Clockwork Orange where Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his friends break into a woman’s home and attack her.
Kubrick didn’t love how the scene was coming out, take after take. Thus, he told McDowell, “Just do whatever you want.” That’s when McDowell broke out into the famous, “Singing in the Rain”.
Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick – 1987)
Kubrick adapted his own screenplay to the film Full Metal Jacket but actor R. Lee Ermey, playing the drill sergeant, deviated from Kubrick’s directions.
Kubrick knew that Ermey was the perfect fit after Ermey sent in a tape of himself going off on Marines and Stanley Kubrick later revealed that R. Lee Ermey improvised around half of his character’s lines.
Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg – 1998)
Often considered among the best WW-II films made in Hollywood, Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan has a moment of impressive improvisation.
When Captain Miller (played by Tom Hanks) has that discussion with Private Ryan (Matt Damon) about things left behind, Ryan talks about seeing his brother kissing a girl. Actor Matt Damon came up with that all by himself.
Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick – 1964)
Kubrick’s 1964 absurdist interpretation of the hypocrisy operating in the military-industrial complex is arguably the best cinematic rendition of nuclear war paranoia.
The film team chose to not write a standard, full script. All of the cast improvised and created something called a ‘retro–script’ where they combined those lines. However, the film’s most iconic mannerism has to be the Nazi salute from Dr. Strangelove.
The Shining (Stanley Kubrick – 1980)
An adaptation of the Stephen King novel, Kubrick’s horror film is also an unsurprising entry on this list. The psychological thriller had tons of memorable moments but the part where Jack axes the door to get to his wife and son takes the cake.
Just as Jack peered into the bathroom in the crack he made, Nicholson adjusted his line to, “Heeere’s Jonny!” Nicholson used this as a little tribute to The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner – 1980)
Harrison Ford is responsible for this iconic moment as Han Solo in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Right when Solo is giving himself over, he shares one last moment with his love, Leia.
Besides their emotional kiss, she tells him, “I love you,” but Ford didn’t think his scripted response of “I love you too,” felt authentic. Thus, Ford added in something that felt more true to his character, “I know.”
Animal House (John Landis – 1978)
It should not come as a surprise that the talented cast of Animal House got to use their background from improv theatre to invent lines.
John Belushi went off-script for the entire scene in the cafeteria. It was all Belushi as he shovelled food into his mouth and pressed on his cheeks, squeezing out the food. He famously added, “I’m a zit– get it?”
Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman – 1984)
Rick Moranis began his career at Second City, Chicago’s famous improv group that turned out countless SNL stars and he continued his improv education in his role for Ghostbusters.
Ivan Reitman revealed later just how talented Moranis was in the role and how he completely improvised that speech at the party. Director Reitman explained, “Rick just made all of it up as he was doing it.”
Caddyshack (Harold Ramis – 1980)
Bill Murray plays the role of a groundskeeper at a posh country club golf course and he is obsessed with killing a gopher who keeps ruining the course’s fairways. A memorable performance, audiences loved his exaggerated accent and facial contortions.
The amazing monologue about the Dalai Lama and the Cinderella one were all made up on the spot by Murray. The script simply read, “Carl cuts off the tops of flowers with a grass whip.”
Tootsie (Sydney Pollack – 1982)
The film follows the story of actor Michael Dorsey (played by Hoffman) who comes to the conclusion that he has burned too many bridges to get roles in films. He transitions to his alter-ego Dorothy, full of love and kindness and he finds professional success in doing so.
Bill Murray features as Hoffman’s roommate and director Sydney Pollack was aware of Murray’s improvisation skills and let him invent a monologue for the party which was incredible, to say the least.
The Third Man (Carol Reed – 1949)
Orson Welles often improvised while acting and he did so in The Third Man as well.
Welles invented, “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed. They produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola – 1972)
Arguably the definitive gangster film, The Godfather has a brilliant improvised scene where Paulie Gatto (Johnny Martino) go to assassinate Don Corleone but things get a little crazy and Paulie dies.
Actor Richard Castellano came up with his own special touch to his line, “leave the gun,” when he added in, “take the cannoli.”
Casablanca (Michael Curtiz – 1942)
The iconic line “Here’s looking at you, kid” from Casablanca was never part of the film’s original script.
However, actor Humphrey Bogart often said that to his costar, Ingrid Bergman while they played poker on set in–between takes. The writers added it to the script after seeing how well it worked.
Titanic (James Cameron – 1997)
Titanic has multiple improvised scenes, including the one where Jack (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) draws a nude Rose (Kate Winslet). DiCaprio messed up his line and said, “Go lie on the bed…I mean the couch” which Cameron ended up loving.
He was just supposed to tell her to go lie on the couch. Leonardo DiCaprio’s iconic moment of shouting, “I’m the king of the world!”, was also an improvised line.
Lost In Translation (Sofia Coppola – 2003)
Lost In Translation’s last scene was initially supposed to be an embrace, and not a kiss but Bill Murray then chose to whisper something into Scarlett’s ear.
It was at that moment when the two costars realised a kiss would be more appropriate but no one knows exactly what was said since there was nothing in the script. When asked about it later, Bill Murray declared that only he and Scarlett will ever know what was said.
The 40 Year Old Virgin (Judd Apatow – 2005)
Much of The 40 Year Old Virgin’s cast were professional improvisation artists who really took things into their own hands and played with the script while filming.
One scene that stands out is when Carrell gets his chest waxed. Well, they actually did wax the actor! That’s precisely why his reaction is so authentic.
Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis – 1994)
Forrest Gump has so many memorable scenes but the one that is known for being improvised is the scene where Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) meets Bubba (Mykelti Williamson).
On the spot, Tom Hanks just said, “My name is Forrest Gump. People call me Forrest Gump.” Robert Zemeckis loved the improved exchange and kept it in the film.
American Beauty (Sam Mendes – 1999)
Sam Mendes gave his actors a lot of freedom while shooting and a result of that artistic liberty was the famous dinner scene. The outrage and the crashing plates were completely unscripted. The shocked and angry reactions of the frustrated suburban family were very authentic.
Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino – 1992)
The film that made Tarantino an acclaimed director, Reservoir Dogs has graphic scene where Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) cuts of the ear of Nash (Kirk Baltz).
It was all Maden with, “Can you hear that?” and witty retorts and even bizarre dancing. He improvised that whole thing, including speaking into the ear.
Citizen Kane (Orson Welles – 1941)
Directed and written by Welles, Citizen Kane routinely appears on lists featuring the best films of all time. It is interesting to note that Welles deviated from the script from the opening line in the film itself.
Instead of saying, “No, my sled…” Orson Welles said, “Rosebud.” Looking back at it, Welles made the right call because every single thing about Citizen Kane has become iconic.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Steven Spielberg – 1989)
Harrison Ford stars as the iconic Indiana Jones and teams up with his estranged father (played by Sean Connery) in the third instalment to the acclaimed series. Connery and Ford make a brilliant and humorous on-screen duo as they stop the Nazis from laying their hands on the Holy Grail.
The narrative is especially touching because the father-son story was close to Spielberg’s heart. When Indiana Jones faces the truth about Elsa being a Nazi spy, he can’t help but wonder how his dad knew. At this moment, Sean Connery had a stroke of genius and added the line, “She talks in her sleep.” The whole crew loved this addition and it fits seamlessly with the character of Henry Jones.
Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright – 2004)
Many scenes Shaun of the Dead were completely improvised but one special moment stands out. While Ed (Nick Frost) tries to console his depressed friend Shaun (Simon Pegg) in the pub, he gets into some intense stories about the regulars including something about a female that looked like a former porn–star.
Everything they said was made up on the spot because all the script said was for the friends to meet at the pub.
Good Morning, Vietnam (Barry Levinson – 1987)
This is yet another moment of comedic genius from Robin Williams who played the charismatic radio host for Good Morning, Vietnam.
Well, most of those radio broadcasts were invented on the spot by Williams, including his iconic, “Gooooood morning Vietnam! Hello campers, remember Monday is Malaria day! That’s right, time to take that big orange pill.”
Annie Hall (Woody Allen – 1977)
In what is one of the most iconic romantic comedies of all time, there’s a moment when Annie (Diane Keaton) said to Alby (Woody Allen), “You never want to try anything new.”
They get offered some cocaine and something totally unexpected happened during that scene. Alby (Allen) sneezes after inspecting it and the powder flies everywhere. Woody Allen accidentally sneezed but the crew and cast found it hilarious.
The Departed (Martin Scorsese – 2006)
Next up, this unscripted moment was invented by Jack Nicholson in The Departed.
As Frank Costello, he sits with Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and brandishes a gun out of nowhere, pointing it at Billy. Billy reacts with complete surprise because Nicholson didn’t tell DiCaprio ahead of him that he came up with this addition.
Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino – 1994)
Many regard Pulp Fiction as Tarantino’s masterpiece, starring Samuel L. Jackson, John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Ving Rhames and Bruce Willis.
However, one of the most iconic moments, the famous hamburger scene, was actually not in the script. Jackson took it upon himself to flip the table. The other actor’s stunned reactions were completely genuine.
Superbad (Greg Mottola – 2007)
Written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg when they were teenagers, Superbad is arguably one of the funniest films of its decade.
When the group meet up after Fogell gets his fake ID card, he chooses a new name – McLovin. The group start giving him a hard time for choosing a single name, with Evan improvising the hilarious line: “What? One name? ONE NAME? Who are you? Seal?”