Ad-Lib Legends: 9 Classic Improvised Scenes

Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta in GoodfellasEvery great movie starts a great script, but sometimes the greatest moments in cinema are captured when an actor “goes off book” and conjures a mesmerizing gesture or unforgettable line on the spot. To wit, here are 10 spontaneous bits that have since been emblazoned into filmmaking history.

1. Annie Hall: The Sneeze
Woody Allen’s most famous movie boasts a lot of memorable hijinks, from Alvy (Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) attempting to put live lobsters in a pot to a timely cameo from noted intellectual Marshall McLuhan (as himself). The biggest laugh, however, might come when Alvy tries to snort a line from a friend’s $2,000 pile of cocaine… only to sneeze away the whole stash. It was a rare—and accidental—bit of improvisation from Allen, whose schnoz couldn’t handle the prop powder. Thus, a legendary sight gag was born.

2. Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb: “Mein Führer! I can walk!”
This Stanley Kubrick movie’s titular ex-Nazi scientist is a chain-smoking, wheelchair-bound madman who rocks dark glasses and a single leather glove. One of three characters portrayed by Peter Sellers, Dr. Strangelove helps guide a U.S. war room full of generals and top politicians into an apocalyptic future after a nuclear war with Russia dooms the planet. Sellers inadvertently provided the film’s unscripted, blackly comic ending by rising jerkily from his chair and exclaiming, “Mein Führer! I can walk!”

3. Full Metal Jacket: “You had best unfuck yourself or I will unscrew your head and shit down your neck!”
A very different Stanley Kubrick war satire, Full Metal Jacket follows a platoon of Marine Corps draftees through basic training to their deployment in ‘Nam. Drill Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) molds his young recruits into hardened soldiers with brutal physical and psychological punishment. Ermey, a real-life Vietnam drill sergeant originally hired as a technical advisor on the movie, blew away the other candidates for the part by hurling ad-libbed dialogue at a room full of auditioning actors. Kubrick promptly rewrote the script around Ermey’s improvised rants.

4. Good Will Hunting: “She used to fart in her sleep.”
Robin Williams was known for madcap, mile-a-minute ad-libbing on stage and screen, bringing hilarious, pop culture-ransacking embellishments to such roles as Aladdin‘s Genie and Good Morning, Vietnam‘s Armed Forces Radio DJ Adrian Cronauer. In Good Will Hunting, he illustrates an off-the-cuff talent for pathos as well as laughs with a heartfelt monologue about his the late wife of his therapist character farting in her sleep—a surprisingly touching moment that serves as the first breakthrough in his doctor-patient relationship with reluctant Will Hunting (Matt Damon).

5. Goodfellas: “Funny how?”
Martin Scorsese’s greatest gangster movie is packed with unforgettable exchanges, but one unscripted scene takes the cake. Violent mafioso Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) seems offended when newly made Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) tells him he’s “a funny guy.” “Funny how?” Tommy replies menacingly. Just as things seem ready to get bloody, Henry realizes Tommy’s messing with him and the tension breaks down into laughter. Pesci improvised the bit in rehearsals, basing the idea on a real-life encounter he had with an unsavory type in which Pesci was the frightened rube.

6. Midnight Cowboy: “Hey, I’m walkin’ here!”
Even if you don’t know this movie, you know its most famous line: “Hey, I’m walkin’ here!” That’s what street-smart con man “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) shouts at a careless cab driver who nearly mows him down as he crosses a New York City street alongside aspiring gigolo Joe Buck (Jon Voight). The cab and the near-collision were real; Hoffman just stayed in character during the unscripted encounter and movie history was made.

7. Reservoir Dogs: Madsen Talking to the Ear
Quentin Tarantino’s astonishing dirctorial debut owes its signature scene to a star’s on-set inspiration. Michael Madsen did four takes of his infamous ear-chopping torture scene, with four variations on Mr. Blonde’s psychotic dance to “Stuck in the Middle with You.” QT used the version in which Madsen spoke into the freshly severed ear, a brilliant bit of black physical comedy that ratchets the scene up into the stratosphere of blood-spattered insanity.

8. Taxi Driver: “You talkin’ to me?”
Another example of Scorsese at his best, Taxi Driver follows damaged cabbie-turned-vigilante Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) on a mad odyssey through the dirty streets of 1970s New York. Nothing encapsulate Bickle’s coiled violence and loneliness like De Niro’s improvised practice tough-talk in front of Bickle’s mirror: “You talkin’ to me?”

9. The Dark Knight: Slow Clap
Often hailed as the greatest superhero movie ever made, The Dark Knight has a lot going for it: Christopher Nolan’s gritty vision of Gotham, Hans Zimmer’s wildly influential score and an all-star cast. Overshadowing all the rest is Heath Ledger’s terrifying performance as the Joker. Ledger transformed a quick bit of exposition into the film’s most chilling scene; when applause breaks out in a police station for Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), who gets promoted for apprehending the supervillain, The Joker joins in from his cell with an improvised, sardonic slow clap of his own—reminding Gordon that the danger hasn’t passed.

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