There are a plethora of people involved in the grand illusion of filmmaking who work solely to make sure production stays on track, but sometimes it’s the moments that are unplanned that can have the best results. Many iconic movie moments can be credited to a screenwriter’s wit or a director’s innovative vision, however, there are times when it’s the actor who elevates the scene with their own creative touch.
The following actors strayed from the script and made the scene all the more memorable because of it. Whether the director gave them the wiggle room to ad lib or they just took a leap of faith at the moment, no one is regretting these impromptu inclusions now.
Here are 24 famous scenes from movies that were actually improvised by the actor.
1. Jaws (1975)
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat” has become one of the most quoted lines in cinematic history, but it was actually ad-libbed by Roy Scheider. In fact, Scheider had ad-libbed the line at multiple points during filming as an almost inside joke about how the problems the characters were facing reflected their own low budget production woes. However, it was the editor’s choice to keep the line after the first look at the giant apex predator that made it all the more effective.
2. Caddyshack (1980)
One of the most memorable scenes in Harold Ramis’ golf comedy is the instantly quotable “Cinderella Story” bit. This sequence was entirely improvised by Bill Murray based on two lines of stage direction. Ramis told Murray to pretend he was announcing his own fantasy sports moment, Murray requested four rows of ‘mums, and the rest is cinematic history.
3. The Shining (1980)
This image of Jack Nicholson sticking his maniacal face through the splintered opening of a door and uttering the line “Heeeere’s Johnny!” has become instantly associated with this horror classic. The line was improvised by Nicholson and inspired by Johnny Carson’s popular catchphrase. The director, Stanley Kubrick, almost didn’t include the line because he wasn’t familiar with Carson’s show.
4. Pretty Woman (1990)
The moment Richard Gere suddenly snaps the jewelry box shut on Julia Roberts’ inquisitive reach has become one of the movie’s most famous moments. This playful touch was improvised by Gere and because Roberts’ reaction was so genuine, the director Garry Marshall decided to keep it in the film.
5. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Anthony Hopkins delivered enough of a skin-crawling performance in just 25 minutes of screen time that he was able to earn himself an Academy Award for it. The famous unsettling hiss Dr. Hannibal Lecter does to intimidate Jodie Foster’s character was actually something Hopkins did as a joke during rehearsals. The director Jonathan Demme liked it so much that he had Hopkins do it again for the actual shoot.
6. The Dark Knight (2008)
Heath Ledger infused many of his own mannerisms and ticks that only emphasized the maniacal nature of his character in Christopher Nolan’s celebrated Batman sequel. One memorable moment in the film when the Joker starts slowly clapping in response to the officers’ applause while giving a deadpan look in a jail cell. The slow clap was completely improvised by Ledger and caught the other actors off guard in a way that worked for the scene.
7. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
The screenplay for Quentin Tarantino’s feature debut never called for Michael Madsen’s character to say anything after cutting off the ear of Officer Nash with a straight razor. However, Madsen decided to keep the scene going and spew out the comically cruel unscripted line, “Hey, what’s going on? You hear that?”
8. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Han Solo rarely showed compassion, which is why his “I love you too” line in the script didn’t end up feeling authentic for the character Ford had shaped. Instead, George Lucas told Ford to improvise. This resulted in Han Solo’s iconic response, “I know.” The line fit the character so well that Lucas decided to keep it in the film.
9. The Godfather (1972)
Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Vito Corleone has become one of the most treasured performances in cinematic history. One iconic image of Brando in the role is him sentencing a man to be beaten while gently stroking a cat. The cat was never actually in the script and some say that Coppola placed it in Brando’s lap. Others, however, have reported that Brando found the cat on set and picked it up for the scene.
10. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The famous scene where Indiana Jones shoots the ravaging swordsman was actually intended to be a long sword fight. However, Harrison Ford was suffering from a severe case of food poisoning and couldn’t perform the necessary stunts. Instead, Ford suggested to director Steven Spielberg to just shoot him, a moment that would go on to become an iconic one in the Indiana Jones franchise.
11. Zoolander (2001)
This cult classic featured a number of comedic improvisations throughout, but there’s a moment that truly stands out. In one scene, David Duchovny exposes to Ben Stiller’s character that the fashion industry has been behind every high-profile political assassination. After the long and detailed explanation, Stiller repeats his original question, “But why male models?” Apparently, Stiller did this because he forgot his line, but Duchovny managed to stay in character and his reaction worked so well that the blunder was kept in the film.
12. Die Hard (1998)
It’s a memorable moment when the antagonist, played by Alan Rickman, finally meets his demise all while realizing his plan had been foiled. The scene required Rickman to actually fall from a 21-foot high model. To get a genuine reaction out of him, the stuntman dropped him on the count of two instead of three.
13. The Departed (2006)
One heated scene between Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson became only more intense due to Nicholson’s decision to improvise with an unexpected prop. Nicholson pulls a gun on DiCaprio in the scene, which wasn’t in the script, and uses it to emphasize his character’s power. DiCaprio appears rattled at the moment but continued to stay in character.
14. The Warriors (1979)
In the scene where the Rogues attempt to prove their rival gang, David Patrick Kelly’s character utters the now famous line, “Warriors! Come out to play!” This line was completely improvised by Kelly and he based it off of a bully from childhood who used to taunt him with that exact prompt.
15. Lost in Translation (2003)
Sofia Coppola’s award-winning screenplay for her sophomore effort only called for Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson to hold each other in their arms in the final scene. However, the two actors ad-libbed a kiss that ended up making it into the final cut of the film.
16. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
One fan favorite moment in the film is the odd scene where McConaughey starts beating his chest and humming. Turns out, this was purely improvised by McConaughey. The chest-beating is actually a ritual of McConaughey’s before shooting and Leonardo DiCaprio told him he should try adding it to the scene. DiCaprio’s face throughout the scene indicates that he never expected McConaughey to take it so far. The improvised moment not only ended up making it into the final cut, it also was used in the marketing of the film.
17. Good Will Hunting (1997)
Robin Williams is known for his comedic improvisational skills and apparently, a drama is no exception. The scene where his character discusses his late wife’s farting antics was completely ad-libbed. The impromptu story not only had Matt Damon laughing, but the camera shakes a bit indicating that the cameraman also couldn’t contain himself.
18. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Johnny Depp undeniably made the character of Jack Sparrow his own, and there’s proof to back that up! Depp improvised multiple lines that ended up becoming catchphrases for the character for the rest of the franchise, including “Savvy?” and the various “eunuch” lines.
19. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)
Fans will be instantly able to recall the uncomfortable moment when Lord Voldemort hugs Draco Malfoy. According to the actor who played Malfoy, this moment was entirely improvised by Ralph Fiennes. The reaction from Malfoy and the rest of the cast was completely genuine as no one knew the hug was coming.
20. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
After being welcomed into slavery by Salma Hayek’s character, George Clooney improvised the now famous line, “No thanks, I’ve already had a wife.” The director, Robert Rodriguez, didn’t intend on including the line in the film, but the studio used it in the trailer and he felt obligated to keep it.
21. Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Dustin Hoffman’s “I’m walking here!” line has become a film favorite, but it was never actually in the script. The production didn’t have a permit to close down a New York City street and a taxi, who ran a red light, almost hit him and Jon Voight. However, Hoffman managed to stay in character despite almost being run over and delivered the now iconic line.
22. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
The scene where Alex performs “Singing in the Rain” as he attacks the writer and his wife was not in the initial screenplay. Stanley Kubrick asked Malcolm McDowell if he could sing and dance to make the scene less conventional. McDowell sang “Singing in the Rain” as it was the only song he could fully remember. Kubrick liked the end result so much that he bought the rights to the song for a hefty $10,000.
23. Bridesmaids (2011)
The riotous wedding party comedy has been quoted endlessly thanks to Kristen Wigg and Annie Mumolo’s hilarious script, but some credit goes to the other actors as well. The engagement party scene where the bridesmaids all meet was entirely improvised. In fact, the cast spent two weeks improvising with one another prior to the shoot.
24. Aliens (1986)
James Cameron’s second installment into the Alien franchise had many memorable moments that made this sequel a sci-fi classic. One line that fans will be quick to recite is Bill Paxton’s character uttering the words “Game over, man! Game over!” According to Paxton, he actually improvised these lines off the cuff.
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