18 of Film’s Greatest Improvised Scenes

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You won’t always find yourself on a set that encourages improvisation and off-script riffs, but there’ve been plenty of unforgettable quips in Hollywood history that were completely off-the-cuff and now in the books for good. We round up 18 of film’s finest below.

“Annie Hall”
Woody Allen didn’t tell the other three actors he was planning on sneezing into the cocaine, but without such a gaffe, we’d never have one of the worst (or greatest?) party fouls caught on tape.

“Being John Malkovich”
Sure, this extra probably wasn’t “right” in going off script while hurling a can at John Malkovich in this modern classic, but the risk was funny enough to keep in the film. It paid off two-fold when the actor got his SAG-AFTRA card for the stunt and got a bump in pay to boot!

“The Breakfast Club”
Director John Hughes reportedly shot this entire ’80s classic in chronological order. So when it came to shooting one of the final, emotionally climactic scenes, he let his actors run with the premise to see what would come naturally with their respective characters.

“Casablanca”
Largely considered one of the greatest films—and certainly greatest screenplays—of all time, “Casablanca” does not lack memorable one-liners. That said, this particular line in lovers’ Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s final goodbye was no where to be found in the script!

“A Clockwork Orange”
In one of the most cringe-worthy scenes of “A Clockwork Orange” (and that’s really saying something!), Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his cohorts invade an unsuspecting couple’s home. After several takes with director Stanley Kubrick, McDowell decided to spice things up with a little song and dance. We haven’t looked at “Singin’ in the Rain” the same way since.

“The Dark Knight”
In his posthumously Oscar-winning take on the Joker, Heath Ledger gives a bone-deep portrayal of a mad man. Luckily, that leaves plenty of room for dark comedy. One improvised addition had him cheekily applauding along with the rest of the precinct when Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon got promoted.

“The Fugitive”
Tommy Lee Jones as Officer Samuel Gerard was the hotheaded and determined cat after Harrison Ford’s mouse, Dr. Richard Kimble. In a memorable face-off in the sewer, Richard insists he didn’t kill his wife, and Jones’ unscripted response is right in line with his character’s one-track mind.

“The Godfather”
Frances Ford Coppola’s masterpiece has several improvised lines—“Leave the gun, take the cannoli!”—but our personal favorite is the opening scene with Marlon Brando and a cuddly kitty. There are two versions to this story: One has Brando finding the cat on set and bringing him to the scene, another has Coppola surprising Brando with the cat seconds before the cameras rolled. Either way, it shows the varying shades of Brando’s Don Vito Corleone from the get-go.

“Goodfellas”
Reenacting a real-life scene from his childhood, Oscar winner Joe Pesci took everyone but director Martin Scorsese by surprise when he laid into co-star Ray Liotta with this now-iconic spat.

“Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Los Ark”
As the story goes, director Steven Spielberg had Ford fully sparring off with this giant swordsman, but the actor wasn’t feeling up to the task after a bout of food poisoning. The two Hollywood legends thought up this alternative moments before shooting.

“Jaws”
Improv is all about in-the-moment action and reaction, so after seeing the killer shark in “Jaws” for the first time, can you blame Roy Scheider for guffawing at the size of his woeful boat?

“Lost in Translation”
Adding another Coppola creation to the mix, Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” is a late-career highlight for comedic actor Bill Murray, who’s especially known for his improv finesse. It’s speculated to this day what he said in his movie-ending whisper to Scarlett Johansson.

“Midnight Cowboy”
Between “The Graduate,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “Rain Man,” and countless others, there’s little doubt that Dustin Hoffman is among the greatest actors of his time. This off-the-cuff scuff with an impeding New York City taxi just about seals the deal.

“Pretty Woman”
Julia Roberts had the magic to make any ’90s rom-com a classic with her beguiling laugh and smile, but in this scene from “Pretty Woman,” she wasn’t acting! Richard Gere’s Edward Lewis does, indeed, present her Vivian Ward with jewelry in the original script, but Gere took Roberts by surprise when he snapped it shut on her fingers.

“The Shining”
Believe it or not, Kubrick never had Jack Nicholason snaking his head through the door and terrifying us all with his take on Johnny Carson! It all came from the mad mind of the master actor himself.

“Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back”
This is one of two times Ford pops up on this list, and really, are you all that surprised? As cocksure pilot Han Solo, Ford snidely replies to Princess Leia’s profession of love with, “I know,” instead of sticking to the script’s “I love you, too.” He certainly knew his character!

“Taxi Driver”
All Robert De Niro was told to do here was talk to himself in the mirror. The rest will go down as one of the most quoted lines in movie history!

“The Warriors”
What’s the first line you think (and probably quote aloud) when this 1979 flick comes to mind? Yup—David Patrick Kelly improvised on the spot!

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Benjamin Lindsay
Benjamin Lindsay is a senior editor at Backstage, where if you’re reading it in our weekly magazine, he’s written or edited it first. He’s also producer and host of our inaugural on-camera interview series, Backstage Live, taking informative deep-dives with actors across mediums to discuss their craft, their work, and their advice for others getting started in the field.
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