Sticking to the script is not easy for many reasons. First of all, the actor wants to take the obvious shortcut. There are so many lines to memorize and making some up is way easier. Secondly, the actor is way more concerned with nailing the emotion of the scene, not the measly lines. And sometimes actors take parts because they like the character and don’t really like the script. They think that their own ideas can improve the production and sometimes they’re right.
This article includes famous and memorable moments when Hollywood legends blew away the preconceived notions. They were in the moment, in the scene, said something they weren’t supposed to, but the director loved it and kept it in the film. What’s amazing is how some of these ad-libs overshadowed the rest of the movie. Some improvs are the high point, and the clearest thing you remember. Without the actors taking risks the finished production might have fallen short. So in a way, this list proves that actors should be encouraged to make mistakes. But they’ve got to be good ones, there’s only so many takes.
Some actors on this list have built their careers around improvisation. They were stand-up comedians before becoming actors and they brought their improv skills with them. Others may surprise you, especially the serious types who seem to play it by the book. We’re not talking about Paul Rudd, or Will Ferrell who ad-lib 80% of the film. We’re talking about brief scenes in major films that were happy accidents. Here’s the legendary improvised movie scenes we’ll never forget.
16 Star Wars: Episode IV: The Empire Strikes Back
Have you ever been out with your girl along with as a bunch of other people, and then she loudly says, “I love you.” Now what are you going to say back? Well imagine if Darth Vader and Boba Fett are standing there too? Now that would really be awkward. Harrison Ford didn’t like the line, “I love you too,” so in true rebellious Han Solo fashion, he replied instead, “I know,” and the line was a hit. He eventually did tell Leia he loved her in Return of the Jedi, and she in turn replied, “I know.” Well these people obviously had a problem with expressing their feelings. No wonder Kylo Ren is all messed up.
15 Taxi Driver
This film was the big deal for Robert De Niro as a solo lead and Martin Scorsese as an amazing director. The movie is filled with political allegory and makes a serious complaint about the filthy state of New York City at the time. And what would this movie have been without the awesome gun flipping scene of De Niro in front of the mirror? Saying “You talking to me?” That’s the one thing that everybody was mimicking after watching the film. The one true moment that everyone remembers was actually a total improvisation. De Niro was totally into character and the phrase just came naturally.
14 Good Will Hunting
It’s no secret that the late, great Robin Williams was obsessed with getting impromptu laughs. If you ever saw him on The Tonight Show you know how much energy the guy exuded. He’d be sitting down one second, then dancing around, pantomiming, making funny noises, doing impressions, and pushing the envelope with sexual innuendo. And the same thing occurred on the set of Good Will Hunting. Although his antics were largely subdued in the Oscar winning role, Robin still managed to squeeze in a hilarious ad-lib: The tale about his wife farting in bed so loudly that it woke her up. Matt Damon’s laughter is completely authentic.
13 Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
“Anyone, Anyone? Something D-O-O Economics. Voodoo Economics.” If those lines ring a bell, then you can just picture Ben Stein standing at the front of the classroom boring the crap out of his students. Director John Hughes had to show why Ferris wanted to skip school so bad and it was because he had teachers like Stein. Zero lines were ever written for Stein. He just came to the set and Hughes told him to teach. Luckily Stein was an economics wizard and had even written speeches for President Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Stein is also a lawyer and an Emmy-winning game show host.
12 The Dark Knight
Heath Ledger did an amazing job in The Dark Knight. He gave everybody who watched the goose bumps, and also earned a posthumous Oscar. Ledger improvised a couple key scenes in the film that really endeared an otherwise too creepy character. One scene was towards the middle when he did the mocking clap from his jail cell. The other was towards the end when he was all dressed up like a nurse and comically fidgeted with the bomb detonator. Both scenes proved how into character the actor was, and literally joking around made the Joker character that much more real.
11 Raiders of the Lost Ark
Harrison Ford surprisingly has a natural knack for improv. One of the best scenes in the entire Indiana Jones trilogy (yes, the awful fourth installment is being purposely ignored) is the scene when Indiana Jones is approached by a whirling dervish of a swordsman. Well, Indy decides he just doesn’t have time for that, so he pulls out his revolver and shoots the swordsman dead. Truth is, Ford was feeling ill on the set and instead of practicing a battle sequence he asked director Steven Spielberg if he could just shoot the guy. The idea couldn’t have been better, and it proved to be the best bit in the entire series.
10 The Godfather
There are a couple improvisations involved in this classic flick, and the first is an additional cast member, the cat. Marlon Brando plays with the kitty during a couple scenes in the film. He strokes the furry pet and mumbles… then strokes the cat and mumbles some more. The cat gives the actor something cute to focus on, which makes his delivery seem more natural and his character more endearing. Another ad-libbed line was, “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” The cannoli bit was added on the spot. Who knows, maybe the actor, Richard Castellano, was hungry. It is hard to pass up a good cannoli.
9 The Fugitive
This is a great thriller with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones going head to head as hunter and prey. Ford managed to escape thanks to an overturned prison bus and Jones catches up to him inside the dam of a large reservoir. The pipes are large and slippery and in pursuit, Jones loses his gun, and Ford picks it up and points it at him. But Ford is innocent, that’s why he’s running, and he wants to make that clear. Ford says, “I didn’t kill my wife!” and Jones answers with the ad-lib, “I don’t care!” Jones just wants to catch his fugitive at first, but after Ford escapes again, the police do eventually investigate the crime.
8 Pretty Woman
How do you endear a character who happens to be paying for love from a street worker. Well step one is to have him watch an episode of I Love Lucy while he’s getting a hummer from the prostitute. You couldn’t be a jerk and love that show, right? Another thing you can do is have the guy buy her expensive gifts. The famous improvisation that was on every Pretty Woman trailer and popularized Julia Robert’s legendary laugh, was the box shut. When Richard Gere’s character presented his lovely ho with diamond jewelry, he snapped the box closed as she reached for it. The laughter was completely genuine since Roberts was truly startled.
7 Dumb and Dumber
Want to hear the most annoying sound in the world? That’s what Jim Carrey thought would be a funny scene in the legendary road-trip scene in Dumb and Dumber. The unpredictable comedian made the entire scene up on the spot, and his partner in crime, Jeff Daniels, chimed right in. Mike Starr, stuck in the middle of the two dummies, looks truly annoyed, because he probably is. Carrey improvised a number of moments in this film, including a funny one-liner in the hotel bar, “We landed on the moon?!” The framed newspaper clipping just happened to be hanging on a wall that was prominently displayed on film. The real hotel was also used as a set for another famous film on this list, The Shining.
Spielberg became a household name after directing this unmatched suspenseful and realistic horror flick. Real life beach-goers wouldn’t get in the water for months after watching that big old shark devour innocent swimmers. One of the most legendary moments of the film, besides the ingeniously simple music, Dada-Dada, was a line that was improvised on the spot by actor Roy Schneider. In the scene, he was chumming the water in efforts to locate the giant great white, and once he finally does see him, he says casually with the knowledge of a composed expert, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
5 Reservoir Dogs
Here’s the film that launched Quentin Tarantino’s awesome writing and directing career. In Reservoir Dogs, audiences first saw how sick and twisted things could get. How Tarantino’s trademark of having characters stall before doing their ultra-violent acts could bring unnerving suspense into a scene. The film also proved Tarantino’s artistry with his use of the soundtrack. In the most memorable scene in Dogs, Michael Madsen tortures a police officer for information by cutting off his ear with a straight razor. Afterwards Madsen improves his conversation saying into the severed ear, “Hey what’s going on? You hear that?” Then Madsen does a happy little jig to "Stuck in the Middle" with you, before pouring gasoline on the bound officer.
Although it is more popular with older generations, Casablanca is definitely a respected film in cinema history. Humphrey Bogart was one of the coolest dudes around. He could play the gangster or the nice guy with a laid back confidence that just wasn’t around back in his day. He invented a swagger that guys like George Clooney and Ryan Gosling wish they could embody. Bogart’s most famous line in the film and perhaps his entire career was, “Here’s looking at you kid.” The line wasn’t actually in the Casablanca script. He ad-libbed it as a personal touch between him and lead actress Ingrid Bergman. He used the line often when the two played cards off the set.
3 Silence of the Lambs
Good old Hannibal Lecter is one of the greatest villains of Hollywood history. Nobody besides Anthony Hopkins could have delivered those creepy lines with such intelligence and believability. The challenge of Hopkins’ huge role was to stay likeable or the movie would fail. One thing he did to endear his characters and spawn a flood of imitators was the infamous hissing sound he made, which was a total ad-lib. The perfect tounge-sucking noise after his ‘farva beans and a nice chianti’ line sent shivers up actress Jodi Foster’s spine. Hopkins used the snakelike noise to creep her out off the set, so he had to fit it in the film somewhere.
2 The Shining
Jack Nicholson is a living Hollywood legend. His roles in such films as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Few Good Men and As Good As It Gets are respected the world over. They are also and filled with improv. In fact the ferocious Few Good Men line “You can’t handle the truth,” he changed from its original, “You already have the truth,” which increased its dramatic effect by a ton. Jack’s most famous improv however was his ax-wielding scene in The Shining. He sticks his head through the door and yells, “Here’s Johnny!” The line was not in the script at all, but director Stanley Kubrick loved it, and it’s an iconic moment to this day.
This improved scene was all Joe Pesci. According to reports, when Pesci was a kid he knew a neighborhood gangster who went off in a similar, irrate tangent. He told director Martin Scorsese about his idea and Marty gave it the okay. All Marty directed Ray Liotta to do was tell Pesci that he was funny. And the rest of the rant was ad-libbed. “Funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you?” The most memorable part of the scene are the looks on the guys in the background who had no idea that the scene even existed. And there was no telling how far Pesci’s wild gangster character was going to take it.