While a good actor knows how to read a script, a great actor has the ability to bring a piece of himself to the role that goes beyond what’s on the page. Through their mannerisms, dialects, and speech patterns, a great actor can truly transform into the role they are portraying. Part of this is the ability to stay in character when something unexpected happens on set. In this way a great actor can take an accidental moment and transform it into a wonderful addition to the story.
In many cases some of what the audience will eventually see on screen was never present in the script at all. Actors who have the ability to improvise on set can create dialogue and other non vocal interactions with other characters from thin air, creating an unscripted moment that in some cases can feel far more genuine than anything that was written ahead of time.
This improvisation is often the basis for moments that take the viewer by surprise in a way that leaves a lasting impression. In fact, some of the most memorable and quotable lines in movies were never written on the page. Here are 15 of the most iconic unscripted movie moments.
15 Good Will Hunting: The Fart Joke
Robin Williams will always be best remembered as a comedic actor, but he won an Academy Award for his highly emotional performance as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. Maguire is a therapist who takes Will Hunting (Matt Damon) under his wing, helping the misguided youth bury his demons so that he can make full use of his extraordinary brainpower. One key aspect of Williams’ character is that he is grieving for his ex-wife, who died of cancer, allowing Will and himself to bond over their shared trauma. In one scene Williams fully improvises a scene in which he shares a fond memory of his wife, explaining how she used to fart in her sleep. It’s an unexpected comic relief in the dramatic scene, and Damon’s laughter is genuine as he is caught off guard by the humorous story. You can even see the camera shaking slightly as the cameraman struggles to resist the urge to burst out laughing at Williams hilarious story.
14 Dumb and Dumber: The Annoying Sound
In this scene from Dumb & Dumber, Harry (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd (Jim Carrey) pick up an unexpected passenger on their way to Aspen in their dog shaped van. The two seem unaware that their passenger is clearly a shady character, and their antics quickly make the man regret hitching a ride. This scene was mostly improvised, as the only instructions in the script were for the two to be as annoying as possible. First the passenger gets caught in the middle of a game of tag between Harry and Lloyd, but a burst of anger shuts them both up. After a moment of silence, Lloyd chimes in and asks “do you want to hear the most annoying sound of the world?” before letting out a horrible screeching noise at the top of his voice. This scene is proof of Jim Carrey’s genius as one of the best comedic actors of all time.
13 The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: Viggo Mortensen Breaks Two Toes
There was no shortage of injuries on the set of the three Lord of the Rings films, which involved action packed sequences shot in remote locations in New Zealand. Among the injuries sustained by just the core cast were a broken rib, a cracked skull, and a dislocated knee, but one injury actually made it into the final film. In this scene, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli find a broach from one of the hobbits lying on top of a steaming pile of orc carcasses, and assume their friends were killed in the battle. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) screams in frustration and kicks an orc helmet as hard as he can before falling to his knees letting out a primal scream. Peter Jackson explained that they did the scene several times, with Mortensen trying to kick the helmet closer to the camera on each take. On the last take, Jackson noted that his scream was much more intense than it had been before. This is because Mortensen broke two of his toes kicking the helmet, channeling the intense pain he felt into the emotional scream of his character.
12 The Godfather: “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”
This is one of the most memorable lines from Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece The Godfather, in which a Mafia hit man brutally murders an enemy of the Corleone family before telling his associate to “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” The actor Richard S. Castellano improvised the latter part of this line, as the script only instructed him to say “Leave the gun,” but an earlier scene had included an instruction from his wife to bring home some of the dessert. With this addition the line became a series-defining line, an encapsulation of the mobster’s nonchalant attitude towards violent crime in six simple words that show how the assassination was nothing more than a casual errand.
11 Full Metal Jacket: Boot Camp
Even though it’s only the first part of the film, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is best remembered for the intense boot camp scenes, in which a ruthless drill instructor psychologically torments the young recruits. The legendary R. Lee Ermey, himself an actual former Marine Corps drill instructor, is constantly unloading a colorful string of profanities and insults, almost all of which were made up on the spot. None of the actors broke character on set as Ermey shouts legendary lines like “I bet you could suck a golf ball through a garden hose,” and “I’ll unscrew your head and sh*t down your neck.” As dramatic and devastating as these sequences are, it’s hard not to appreciate the colorful language Ermey employs.
10 Being John Malkovich: “Hey, Malkovich! Think fast!”
Spike Jonze received an academy award nomination for his film Being John Malkovich, a surreal comedy in which a puppeteer discovers the ability to enter the head of the actor John Malkovich, who plays himself in the film. This scene involved extras who were supposed to drive by Malkovich as he walked down the side of the highway. However, in the DVD commentary, Jonze revealed that some of his extras had snuck beer onto the set during the long shooting day. One of the extras had a little too much to drink and couldn’t resist playing a prank on the famous actor. As he drove by in the car he took an empty beer can and pelted it at the actor, shouting “Hey, Malkovich! Think fast!” Ironically the director liked the moment and the genuine pain on Malkovich’s face so much that he kept it in the film. Instead of getting fired, the rebellious extra received a pay raise.
9 Zoolander: “But why male models?”
One of Ben Stiller’s most iconic characters is Derek Zoolander, the bumbling male model who accidentally gets wrapped up in a political assassination. In this scene, a former hand model spends several moments explaining a complex conspiracy theory to Zoolander and his partner Hansel (Owen Wilson) about why the government chose the empty headed and malleable male models to be political assassins. When he finishes his explanation, Ben Stiller was unable to remember what his next line was supposed to be, so he just repeated his last line: “But why male models?” With the addition of this improvised line of dialogue, the scene changes to suggest that Zoolander is so thickheaded he didn’t understand a word of what he just heard, which is a perfect response for his character.
8 Silence of the Lambs: The Hiss
The legendary actor Anthony Hopkins only appears on screen for 16 minutes in The Silence of the Lambs, but he made the most of every second, winning an Academy Award and turning Hannibal Lecter into a pop culture icon. In this scene, the sadistic cannibal shows Clarice (Jodie Foster), an unwilling partner in the investigation of a string of murders, that he will always be a step ahead of her. First he dissects Clarice’s biggest insecurities after only meeting her a few times, before explaining what happened the last time someone tried to test him: “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” Then, Hopkins lets out an animalistic hissing noise, making Lecter seem all the more unstable and terrifying. This unscripted moment is just one of many that define Hopkins’ incredible performance.
7 Midnight Cowboy: “I’m walkin’ here!”
This phrase has become entrenched in our pop culture lexicon, and has come to encapsulate New Yorkers’ aggressiveness and blasé attitude towards constantly dodging traffic as pedestrians. While most people will recognize the phrase, many don’t know its source. This line was spoken by Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy when a cab nearly hits him as he goes to walk across the street. The actor slaps the hood of the cab and yells “I’m walkin’ here!” During the shooting of the low budget production, the filmmakers couldn’t afford the expense of hiring extras or requiring the permits to block off a city street, so during this sequence the actors had to time the walk lights perfectly. When a cab jumped the light, almost running into Hoffman, he was more frustrated about ruining the shot than he was about himself being in danger. However, he was able to stay in character, and his genuine anger made it into the final cut of the film.
6 Raiders of the Lost Ark: Gun vs Sword
Raiders of the Lost Ark is the first introduction of Indiana Jones, the cocky archaeologist slash action hero who is hired to find the Ark of the Covenant before a group of Nazis get to it. One particular scene encapsulates the dual aspects of Indiana Jones that make the character so brilliant: his skill as a fighter and his dry, sarcastic humor. Indy has just escaped from a long foot chase, only to come face to face with a master swordsman who dazzles him with a spinning scimitar. In a moment that totally defies the audience’s expectations, he simply pulls out his gun and shoots the swordsman. This was intended to be an epic battle of sword vs whip that would have taken several days to complete. However, Harrison Ford was suffering from a bad case of dysentery and eager to get home. Trying to get out of the two or three long shooting days it would take to finish the scene, he suggested to director Steven Spielberg that he just shoot his opponent, which actually makes much more sense than trying to dispatch him with a whip. This became one of the most iconic moments from the Indiana Jones franchise.
5 The Shining: “Here’s Johnny!”
The character Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is one of Jack Nicholson’s most memorable characters, as he slowly descends into madness after being cooped up in an old hotel all winter. In the most climactic scene, he finally snaps and, brandishing an axe, attacks his wife and child. This is by far the most memorable scene in the film, as Torrence slowly chops down the bathroom door where his wife, played by Shelley Duvall, is hiding in horror. Once he cuts a big enough hole in the door, he pokes his head through and shouts “Here’s Johnny!” This moment was not in the film’s script, as Nicholson borrowed the line Ed McMahon used to introduce Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. However, thanks to Nicholson, for most people the phrase will now call up memories of the deranged Jack Torrence rather than the late night TV host.
4 The Empire Strikes Back: “I know.”
Here is another career-defining line from Harrison Ford that was never included in the original script. When Han Solo (Ford) is about to be frozen in Carbonite, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) confesses “I love you!” to which Solo, always cocky even in the face of death, simply replies “I know.” The script called for Han Solo to reply “I love you too,” but Ford changed the line so that the meaning behind it suggests “I’ll be back.” Not only is the scene perfectly in character for the roguish Han Solo, it’s far more memorable and unexpected than the original line, and adds an element of comedy to the dramatic scene.
3 Taxi Driver: “You talkin’ to me?”
Taxi Driver just celebrated its 40th birthday, and was a career defining feature for both the director, Martin Scorsese, and star, Robert De Niro, shooting both of them to stardom. De Niro plays Travis Bickle, and unstable Vietnam veteran who spends his sleepless nights driving a taxi around the streets of New York. Bickle’s already shaky mental state devolves over the course of the film, until he goes on a violent vigilante rampage against the scum of the city. In this scene, the only note in the script was for Travis to talk to himself in the mirror. He acts out an altercation in which he asks an imaginary stranger “Are you talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here, who the f*ck do you think you’re talking to?” before deploying the pistol rig he has hidden up his sleeve. This has become by far the most quoted scene from the iconic film.
2 Jaws: A Bigger Boat
Jaws was Steven Spielberg’s first major success as a director, telling the story of three men tasked with hunting down a shark that’s been terrorizing the local community. In this scene, Brody (Roy Scheider) is shoveling chum into the water in an attempt to attract their prey. While his back is turned, the head of the shark breaks the surface of the water, revealing its massive teeth. This is the first time the characters, and the audience, get a glimpse of the gigantic killer. Scheider broke the tense atmosphere on the set with the now iconic line “you’re gonna need a bigger boat.” The simple line has become a common pop culture reference to indicate someone realizing they are in way over their head.
1 Django Unchained: Leo Breaks a Glass
For many people this scene alone is living proof that Leonardo DiCaprio was far overdue for an Academy Award before his win for The Revenant in 2016. DiCaprio’s character John Candy, a racist plantation owner known for his sadistic treatment of his slaves, delivers a long monologue to his party guests about his white supremacist ideology. Suddenly, Candy slams his down on the table emphatically, accidentally hitting a glass on the way down. The glass shattered, and DiCaprio badly cut his hand. Despite the steady flow of blood coming from his hand, DiCaprio finishes the scene, even smearing his blood on the face of a genuinely horrified Kerry Washington in a disgusting display of ownership over his slave. DiCaprio received a standing ovation on set for finishing the scene despite his injured hand, but most audiences assumed the blood was just a prop. While the scene is brilliant even without knowledge of this accidental moment, it adds another dimension to the scene that makes DiCaprio’s performance all the more awe-inspiring.