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Ten Greatest Improvised Moments in American Film

Updated on August 2, 2014

Going off script...

Most movie directors are very strict when it comes to the script and they forbid their actors to even attempt improvising a line. Other directors are okay with a little improvisation if it works in a scene while some directors actually encourage it. This article will take a look some iconic movie moments from past to present that were not scripted and completely improvised. It just goes to show you how much better a film can be made by the talent of an incredible actor.

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"Here's looking at you, Kid" Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942)

The line "Here's looking at you, kid" said by Bogart towards the end of the classic romantic drama Casablanca has been often cited as one of the most memorable lines in movie history. It help cement Bogart's status as a film legend and it has been constantly repeated and imitated since the 1940s. But the line doesn't appear in the original script and was improvised by Bogart.

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"I can walk!" Peter Sellers in Dr. Stranglove (1964)

The Stanley Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove, a black comedy about possible nuclear war, is filled with many subtle yet overt lines of irony and satire that make it a great film to watch more than once. Such instances include the famous line "you can't fight in here, this is the war room," and the sign that states "Peace is our profession" during a fierce gun battle. But towards the end Dr. Stranglove, a German scientist who was confined to a wheelchair the whole film, stands up and proclaims "Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!" Another shot of irony for several reasons. However this entire action was completely improvised by Peter Sellers who played Stangelove and two other characters in the film. Everything from the standing to the line itself was unscripted and Kubrick initially cut it out of the movie but in the end he left the moment in giving us one of the most iconic improvised moments in movie history.

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"I'm walking here!" Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy (1969)

When Dustin Hoffman's character in the raunchy 1969 film Midnight Cowboy slammed his hand on a taxi that nearly hit him and said "Hey, I'm walking here!" it seemed like a perfectly scripted moment that would go down in movie history. Although it did go down in movie history, it wasn't a part of the script. The taxi that almost hit Hoffman was a real New York City cab, it had accidentally driven onto the closed set. Hoffman's reaction to the cab was real and completely improvised. Not only did he improvise the "I'm walking here" part but also the profane gestures that followed as well the joke about insurance at the end of the scene.

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The Cat - Marlon Brando in The Godfather (1972)

Although everything in the extremely iconic opening scene of The Godfather is well scripted and brilliantly crafted, one aspect of the scene was not in the script: The cat. The dark, powerful, and well respected Vito Corleone playing with a cat while discussing business was long thought to be a well thought out idea of showing how a man of such brutality could be at the same time gentle with something as innocent as a small kitten. But in reality the cat was simply thrown into Brando's lap by director Frances Ford Coppola just seconds before shooting the scene. Maybe it was a test or maybe they simply wanted to see what Brando's reaction would be but either way it was a move that gave the scene a more eerie feeling.

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"You talking to me?" Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976)

The very memorable rant that De Niro goes into while looking in the mirror in Taxi Driver produced possibly the most imitated and well known movie line of the last 50 years. But the line and the entire rant itself was all unscripted. The script simply called for De Niro to stare at the mirror but De Niro's brilliant method actor approach gave him the idea to began talking to a fictional predator. The scene is by far one the best ever improvised in movie history.

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"Here's Johnny!" Jack Nicholson in The Shining (1980)

The Shining is a highly psychological horror film filled with subtle hidden symbolism and cryptic subtext throughout. But there is nothing subtle at all about Jack Nicholson's manic door breaking scene in which he utters the famous line "Here's Johnny!" while wielding an axe. The line was not in the script nor was it in the original Stephen King novel. The line was improvised by Nicholson and was most likely taken from the popular late night TV series The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson where the line was used to introduce Carson every night. Despite its comical roots, the line never sounded more horrifying than it does here.

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Opening Speech - R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Kubrick is known for making movies that are extremely accurate and nowhere is that more evident than with Full Metal Jacket. R. Lee Ermey, who plays the tough as nails Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, was an actual drill sergeant in real life for the U.S. army during the Vietnam war. His real-life experience there convinced Kubrick to allow him to ad-lib and improvise nearly all of his dialogue. The scene below is one of the most famous to be almost completely improvised and is one of the most famous military scenes in movie history.

WARNING: Strong Language

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The Necklace and The Laugh - Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (1990)

In the single most popular romantic comedy ever made, there is a famous scene where Richard Gere's character (The wealthy businessman) gives Julia Roberts' character (the prostitute he falls in love with) an extremely nice necklace. He opens the box to show it to her and as she reaches for it he quickly shuts the box. This was a completely unscripted action and Roberts' excessive laugh that follows was her real reaction to the moment. The scene ended up being the most iconic from the whole movie.

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Delayed Explosion - Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008)

Heath Ledger's performance in the dark super hero action film The Dark Knight is one of the most haunting things film has ever captured. His performance is made even more eerie by his real life tragic death that occurred just months before the film was released. There are many instances of Ledger's flawless acting skills on display throughout the movie but there is one scene that shows off his improv skills. Ledger's Joker character begins blowing up a hospital and a series of real on set explosions occur. But while leaving the hospital, Ledger realizes that the biggest explosion had not happened yet and the explosions stop for a second. This was not in the script but rather a technical difficulty on the set. Instead of breaking character, Ledger turns around and improvises a disappointed Joker constantly pressing his detonator until the biggest explosion occurs. Now that's an actor.

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Cut Hand - Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained (2012)

DiCaprio doesn't get as much credit as he should for his stellar acting in Django Unchained, probably because of how brutal and insensitive his character is towards African Americans. But at the end of the famous dinner scene DiCaprio shows just how good of an actor he really is. In this scene DiCaprio slams his hand down on the table as he accuses his guests of trying to deceive him. When doing this DiCaprio severely cuts his hand on a plate and the blood that gushes out is real and completely unscripted (although it does fit a Tarantino film perfectly). DiCaprio continues acting with the cut hand and even thinks to smear some of the blood on Kerry Washington's face (another unscripted move, obviously) and Washington's disgusted scream was her real reaction to the unexpected (and real) blood being put on her. Talk about a guy committed to a scene until the director says "cut." This moment definitely makes the grade as one the best improvised scenes in a movie.

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    • charliecrews38 profile image

      charliecrews38 21 months ago from Melbourne, Australia

      I would suggest the last scene in captain phillips, it was brilliant and heartbreaking, great hub, thanks

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