Iconic Movie Scenes That Were Totally Improvised

A lot goes into making a movie, from the casting to the production. However, some would argue that the script is the most pivotal part. After all, you can’t have a movie without a script, right? It’s not the 1930s anymore.

Actors sometimes deviate from the lines, creating their own stories for the character. In some cases, it doesn’t work and it ends up on the cutting room floor, but in other cases, the improvised material is better than anyone could’ve ever predicted. Join us as we take a look at some iconic movie scenes that were totally improvised.

“Here’s Johnny!”, The Shining

Photo via The Producer Circle Company

Jack Nicholson can play crazy like his life depends on it. Way before he was ever the Joker, Nicholson landed the role of Jack Torrence in Stanley Kubrick’s horror flick, The Shining. It’s not hard to see how he landed the part of the maniacal mad man after this.

One of the most spine-chilling moments from the movie sees Nicholson’s possessed character hack his way into a bathroom to get to his terrified wife. When he smashes the wood with an ax, he cries, “Here’s Johnny!”. Nicholson threw that phrase in after stealing it from Ed McMahon, who used it to introduce Johnny Carson on The Johnny Carson Show.

“You talkin’ to me?” Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver
Photo by Bill/Phillips Productions

Robert De Niro secured the role of a lifetime when he was picked to play a neurotic cab driver. Then 34 years old, De Niro had yet to achieve the kind of fame that he has today. Taxi Driver put him on the map.

The scene where he talks to himself in the mirror as he plans to off a politician is one of the most widely-referenced in movie history. Surprisingly, Paul Schrader’s script simply said, “Travis talks to himself in the mirror.” The rest was all De Niro. It’s not hard to see why he’s the best in the biz all these years later.

The Slow Clap, The Dark Knight

Photo by Warner Bros Pictures/Legendary Pictures/Syncopy

Heath Ledger’s Joker was so beautifully done that the majority of actors are scared to reprise it. Not only was his take on the character unique and perfectly honed; it was made even more poignant by his sudden passing.

One scene sees the Joker sitting alone in a jail cell, while Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) is promoted by the mayor to Commissioner. All the officers in the room burst into rapturous applause, but the Joker starts clapping menacingly slowly, his facial expression unchanged. Ledger threw in the action on a whim. The result was both beautiful and creepy as heck.

Hannibal’s Hiss, Silence of the Lambs

Photo by Strong Heart/Demme Productions

Hannibal Lecter is one of the most iconic characters ever, thanks to the incredible actor Anthony Hopkins. The psychopath is best known for his interaction with Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster.

In one scene, Lecter tells Starling about a census-taker he ate with “some fava beans and a nice Chianti,” before letting out that now infamous hiss. Little did audiences know that the hiss wasn’t in the script. Hopkins originally did it in rehearsals to freak his co-star out, but director Jonathan Demme liked it so much he kept it in. Hopkins would later win an Oscar for his efforts.

“I’m walking here!” Midnight Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy
Photo by Jerome Hellman Productions

1969’s Midnight Cowboy saw Jon Voight as Joe Buck and Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo. The unlikely couple is walking on the street in New York when a yellow cab almost mows them down, prompting Ratso to shout, “I’m walking here!” and bash on the hood.

The line became so famous that it pretty much surpassed the success of the movie itself. Hoffman claims he ad-libbed the line, but director John Schlesinger insists that it was always in the script. The jury is out on this one, but if it was completely fabricated on set than kudos to Hoffman for making movie gold.

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” Jaws

Photo by Zanuck/Brown Company

1975’s Jaws made a star out of Steven Spielberg and kick-started our love of shark movies. The wet ‘n’ wild thriller saw Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) try to catch the underwater predator.

Towards the end of the movie, he heads out with Captain Quint (Robert Shaw) to try and put an end to the terror once and for all. As he’s placing the bait in the water, he gets a glimpse of the shark and turns to Quint, uttering, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” That line was all Scheider. Little did the actor know it would become a part of pop-culture history.

Ryan’s Story, Saving Private Ryan

Photo via Amblin Entertainment

For a movie with his character’s name in the title, Matt Damon didn’t see as much screen time as the others. Tom Hanks stole the show in Saving Private Ryan thanks to his stellar performance as Captain Miller.

The Captain and Private Ryan sit down for a moment while they wait for the Germans to make their move. Ryan starts telling an anecdote about his brother getting caught making out with a girl in a barn. It’s a touching moment in the movie that toys with our emotions. Damon surprised his co-star with the impromptu tale, and it worked remarkably well.

Maguire’s Flatulent Wife, Good Will Hunting

Photo by Be Gentlemen

We’ve got the late, great Robin Williams to thank for this one. Good Will Hunting is still hailed as one of the best movies of all time, starring Williams as therapist Sean Maguire and Matt Damon as his patient, Will Hunting.

When Maguire is trying to establish a rapport with Hunting, he tells him his wife once woke herself up by farting. If you look closely, you can see the camera shake ever so slightly…that’s because Williams put his improv skills to good use and made the whole thing up off the cuff. Damon’s laugh is 100% real. Williams won his only Oscar for the part.

The Ex-Adult Star, Shaun of the Dead

Shaun of the Dead
Photo by Studio Canal/Working Title Pictures

It’s hard to believe that the British comedy-horror flick Shaun of the Dead came out 15 years ago, isn’t it? The romp saw Simon Pegg and Nick Frost battle against the undead, trying to make their way back to the pub.

Frost’s character Ed tries to boost Shaun’s morale by telling him stories about the regular customers at the watering hole, including one tale of a woman who used to be an adult star. It works and Shaun starts laughing. Frost made the entire tale up on the spot, so Pegg’s laugh would be genuine. The extra’s weren’t laughing though, as according to Emlii.com, they were paid a measly £1 a day.

Mr. Blonde’s Moment, Reservoir Dogs

Reservoir Dogs
Photo by Live America Inc/Dog Eat Dog Productions

1992’s Reservoir Dogs was the first feature-length offering from world-renowned director Quentin Tarantino. Starring some huge names like Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, and Steve Buscemi, the movie focuses on a heist gone wrong.

Michael Madsen plays the part of Mr. Blonde, aka Vic Vega. In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, he tortures a tied-up police officer, dancing around the room to “Stuck in the Middle With You” before cutting off the cop’s ear. It’s a gory scene, but Madsen made it darkly comic by holding up the severed ear and talking into it, saying, “Hey, what’s going on? You hear that?”

“Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!” Dr. Strangelove

Dr Strangelove
Photo by Hawk Films

Peter Sellers gave one of his finest performances in Stanley Kubrick’s satirical movie Dr. Strangelove. There are a few moments throughout the movie that were completely improvised by Sellers, but the best was saved for last.

In the final scene, the wheelchair-bound nuclear weapons expert with connections to the Nazis stands up and shouts, “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!” Sellers came up with the quip after getting out of the wheelchair, forgetting that his character was supposed to be disabled. It’s the last spoken word in the movie, which gives it added importance. Does it make a whole lot of sense? No. That’s what makes it so good.

“But why male models?” Zoolander

Photo by Village Roadshow Pictures/VH1 Films

Ben Stiller’s Zoolander parodied the fashion industry in a playful way, going on to spawn a sequel years later. Both movies were well-received, thanks in large to Stiller’s acting.

In the first movie, David Duchovny gives an impassioned speech about the issues in the modeling world when Derek asks, “Why male models?” but when he’s done, Derek asks him the same question again. It’s a testament to Derek’s character that fits perfectly, but Stiller only asked the question again because he forgot his actual line. The scene worked so well that it was left untouched. Stiller revealed the details in a Reddit AMA.

Wonka’s Entrance, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Photo by Wolper Pictures

Roald Dahl fans rejoice – let’s take a walk down Candy Cane Lane with this one. Fans of the original movie were left disappointed with Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Willy Wonka, and rightly so. Gene Wilder set the bar so high that no one could ever come close to his version of the chocolatier.

In the very beginning of the movie, Wilder appears to the waiting Golden Ticket holders as a frail old man who can barely walk. He seemingly falls to the ground before turning an incredible somersault greeting his guests. Wilder came up with the skit, and although it wasn’t improvised on the day (Wilder accepted the role on the basis that he could insert this) it’s worth mentioning.

The Kitty, The Godfather

Photo by Paramount Pictures

To this day, no one has played a mob boss as well as Marlon Brando. The actor managed to make Vito Corleone both despicable and respectable, something that isn’t easily done. In the first movie, Corleone gives the order for a man to beaten after he attacked another man’s daughter.

All the while, he’s calmly stroking a teeny, tiny adorable cat. The paradox is what makes the scene so delicious, but it was never supposed to happen. Some reports say Brando found the cat wondering on the set and picked it up, while others believe Coppola gave Brando the cat just as cameras were rolling.

“I know,” The Empire Strikes Back

Empire Strikes Back
Photo by Lucasfilm Ltd

Up until very recently, Harrison Ford played the role of Han Solo in the Star Wars franchise. In one of the recent movies, Solo was killed by the son he shared with long-time love Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher).

In the 1980 installment, The Empire Strikes Back, Leia professes her affection for her beau, telling him she loves him. Originally, Solo was supposed to say “I love you too,” but it didn’t fit in with Ford’s portrayal of the hard-faced character. George Lucas left it up to the actor to decide on the line, and the result was a simple, but revolutionary, “I know.”

“Take the cannoli,” The Godfather

Godfather Cannoli
Photo by Paramount Pictures

For a movie full of brutal slayings and Mafia politics, The Godfather also manages to inject invaluable droplets of humor. Caporegime Peter Clemenza (Richard Castellano) rushes out of the house to take out Paulie Gatto, as his wife reminds him to get cannoli.

After the hit is taken out, Clemenza tells his friend, “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” The scripted line was simply, “Leave the gun,” but Castellano’s addition made it what it was – pure genius. The mention of the chore cements the idea that this is just everyday life to these guys, where a murder is done on a cannoli run before going home to dinner.

The Jewelry Box Snap, Pretty Woman

Pretty Woman
Photo by Touchstone Pictures

In theory, Pretty Woman shouldn’t be a quintessential love story. Richard Gere’s character falls in love with the prostitute (Julia Roberts) he hires to keep him company. But, somehow, it works.

When Roberts is dressed up to the nines in the signature red dress, Gere presents her with an expensive necklace in a box. As she is looking at it, he playfully snaps the lid closed on her hand. Roberts erupts into a fit of laughter which was totally real. Gere made the impromptu move and director Garry Marshall decided to keep it in. Better than the shopping scene? Maybe not, but it’s still golden.

Wedding Dress Poop, Bridesmaids

Photo by Apatow Productions

For all intents and purposes, Bridesmaids should’ve been another chick flick that was easily forgotten about, but Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph gave it the comic factor. Thanks to the talented cast, it surpassed expectations to become one of the funniest movies to date.

The most popular scene is the dress shop fiasco, where the group is suffering from an ill-advised Mexican meal. The bride, played by Rudolph, stumbles out into the street where she collapses to the ground and poops herself in the incredibly expensive designer gown. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman told the Huffington Post that the scene was the brainchild of the actors and not of the scriptwriter.

“Know how I know you’re gay?” Knocked Up

Knocked Up
Photo by Apatow Productions

Seth Rogan and Paul Rudd get the next badge of honor, thanks to their improved scene in Knocked Up. Prior to starring in the movie, the actors had worked together on The 40-Year-Old Virgin and were old hats at creating off-the-cuff scenes.

In the Katherine Heigl comedy, Rudd and Rogen are sat in a car, teasing each other by repeating the line, “Know how I know your gay?” and going back and forth with reasons like “You still make Brokeback Mountain Jokes and “You wear V-neck sweaters with nothing underneath.” The entire improv lasted over six minutes and was added as a feature in the DVD extra.

The Car Scene, Dumb and Dumber

Dumb and Dumber
Photo by Katja Motion Picture

Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels captured our hearts in the 1994 comedy, Dumb and Dumber. Playing the parts of Lloyd and Harry respectively, the pair made one of the most quotable movies of all time.

In one clip, the guys pick up a hitchhiker from the side of the road, not realizing that he’s actually a hitman hired to kill them. Being who they are, the two oddballs mess around the entire journey, taking annoying to a whole new level. After a singular moment of calm, the contract killer thinks its all over…until Harry says, “Hey, want to hear the most annoying sound in the world?” and yells in his ear. The entire skit was unscripted, which is why it’s so chaotically brilliant.