Screenwriters are a crucial part of the crazily complicated moviemaking process, with their work ensuring that a film stays engaging second by second. But some of cinema’s most outstanding moments come from the sparks of ingenuity – and sometimes tomfoolery – that fly when actors take things into their own hands. Here are 20 such awesomely improvised moments.
20. The Silence of the Lambs – Lecter’s Hiss
When Dr. Hannibal Lecter tells FBI agent Clarice Starling how he consumed the liver of a census taker, he ends his story with a sinister, spine-tingling hiss. Well, that hiss – which started as an on-set joke that Anthony Hopkins played on Jodie Foster – wasn’t in the script.
19. Good Will Hunting – Flatulent Wife
At a crucial point in the movie, cocky Will Hunting (Matt Damon) returns to Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) for a follow-up therapy session. Maguire tells Hunting a funny story about his wife, who apparently passed wind so loudly in her sleep that she’d wake herself up. Williams actually concocted this story on the spot, and the ensuing laughter between the two is genuine.
18. Saving Private Ryan – Barn Story
Matt Damon took his own shot at improvisation in this powerful World War Two movie. Here, his character Private Ryan tells Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) about how his brother had had a disastrous romp in a barn. In fact, it was a touch of ad-libbed warmth that won Damon many plaudits.
17. The Godfather – Corleone’s Cat
Cat fan Marlon Brando must’ve been overjoyed when a stray wandered onto the set of The Godfather, and Francis Ford Coppola apparently placed it in his lap at the last second for movie’s legendary opening scene. Furthermore, the cat’s purring was so loud that the crew had to later loop Brando’s lines after filming.
16. Dumb and Dumber – Lloyd’s Scream
The scene where Harry and Lloyd (Jeff Daniels and Jim Carrey) are driving their van with a hapless thug stuck between them is best remembered for Carrey’s insufferable scream, which he proudly calls “the most annoying sound in the world.” Perhaps typically, he came up with it on the spot.
15. Midnight Cowboy – “I’m Walkin’ Here!”
The phrase “I’m walkin’ here!” shot to fame when Midnight Cowboy’s Ratso, played by Dustin Hoffman, was almost hit by a cab as he crossed the road. Hoffman later said he wanted to berate the driver for messing up the shot, but he managed to stay in character.
14. Apocalypse Now – Showdown with Kurtz
Marlon Brando struggled to memorize his lines while playing Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, so he recorded his own 18-minute monologue – two minutes of which made the final cut. It was later described by screenwriter Meade Roberts as incoherent but brilliant.
13. A Clockwork Orange – “Singing in the Rain”
The infamous rape scene in Clockwork Orange was so harrowing for the actress who played the victim that she had to be replaced. It was made even more disturbing by Alex (Malcolm McDowell) belting out “Singing in the Rain” as it was happening, which Stanley Kubrick gave him the freedom to do.
12. Blade Runner – “Like Tears in Rain”
At the movie’s climax a failing Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) tells Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) about the things he’s seen in his violent life. “All those moments will be lost in time,” he manages to say, before going off script and uttering, “Like tears in rain.” It’s a great moment that imbibes the android with a glimmer of humanity.
11. The 40-Year-Old Virgin – Chest Waxing
Steve Carrell having his chest waxed is a prime example of suffering for one’s art – especially when it’s entirely real. So those colorful profanities pouring from Carrell’s mouth as a million hairs are simultaneously torn from his character Andy’s body? Yep, completely unscripted.
10. Fight Club – The First Punch
Brad Pitt didn’t know what was coming when Ed Norton landed that first punch in Fight Club. Director David Fincher told Norton to hit Pitt for real without his costar knowing, and his awkward swipe resulted in the legendary reaction, “You hit me in the ear!”
9. When Harry Met Sally – Fake Orgasm
If Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan’s chat about fake orgasms feels natural, it’s because it was unscripted. This scene was pretty much the actors shooting the breeze, and it culminated with Ryan’s now-famous fake orgasm, which prompted the “I’ll have what she’s having” line from the lady at the next table.
8. Goodfellas – “Funny How?”
The sinister scene where Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) reacts badly to Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) calling him “a funny guy” was heavily improvised. It was inspired by a real-life experience from Pesci’s youth. Indeed, as a young man he praised an apparently connected man’s sense of humor – only to get a threatening reaction.
7. The Usual Suspects – The Lineup
The actors in this iconic police lineup were only scripted to say, “Give me the keys,” followed by a couple of expletives. Not only was the eccentric delivery of the lines improvised, but the actors’ sniggering fit was down to Benicio Del Toro incessantly breaking wind while the cameras were rolling.
6. The Dark Knight – Joker’s Clap
In a particularly memorable scene, Lieutenant Gordon is promoted to commissioner while the Joker looks on from his cell. All the cops clap to congratulate Gordon, but when they see the Joker is unsettlingly clapping along – something that was improvised by Heath Ledger – they stop.
5. The Warriors – Luther’s Chant
The dark campiness of this dystopian classic is captured in the scene where Luther (David Patrick Kelly) tries to goad the good-guy Warriors into battle. Clinking three bottles together, he chants, “Warriors, come out to play” in an increasingly high-pitched tone. Few people know, however, that this was Kelly’s own creative touch.
4. Annie Hall – Expensive Sneeze
When Alvy (Woody Allen) sneezed while sniffing – not snorting – cocaine in Annie Hall, the pricey powder pretty much went over everyone. However, the sneeze was entirely genuine, which explains why the other cast members laughed so much. Furthermore, preview audiences loved it, so the sneeze made the final cut.
3. The Shining – “Here’s Johnny!”
Behind-the-scenes footage revealed that Jack Nicholson worked himself into a frenzy while playing Jack Torrance. After the maniacal character bashes through a door in search of his wife Wendy, he shouts, “Here’s Johnny!” It was Nicholson’s own doing, and it resulted in one of the most iconic movie catchphrases of all time.
2. Taxi Driver – “You talkin’ to me?”
This is another example of a character’s deteriorating sanity being captured by a great actor let off the leash. And in this case Travis Bickle’s (Robert De Niro’s) “You talkin’ to me?” rant in the mirror brilliantly captures the character’s loneliness, danger and complexity. The script just said, “Bickle speaks to himself in the mirror,” and De Niro did the rest.
1. Casablanca – “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid”
The parting shot between Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), in which the lovers come to terms with probably never seeing each other again, is one of cinema’s seminal moments. Bogart finishes the exchange with “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid” – something he’d casually say to Bergman during on-set downtime.