It takes an incredible amount of talent to write a good screenplay. Being able to develop characters and illustrate their interactions between themselves and other characters and/or their environment is a skill that requires a ton of practice.
A goal for many screenwriters is to leave the audience with one or two lines that will stick with them long after the film ends. But sometimes, the best lines are delivered without the pen. When you allow the actors and directors to have some fun with a scene, you could potentially create some magical dialogue and scenes. In the next 10 examples, let’s explore some of the greatest improvised lines in movie history.
1. “You talking to me?” – Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Taxi Driver
Paul Schrader openly does not take credit for this memorable line. In the original script it only reads, “Travis speaks to himself in the mirror” and Robert De Niro improvised the dialogue. If anything, it’s the truest line in the film. Travis Bickle is an isolated and troubled man who is in desperate need of genuine contact and affection. Not being able to obtain this, he simulates the world the way he views it.
2. “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” – Peter Clemenza (Richard S. Castellano) in The Godfather
In the previous scene, Peter’s wife ask him to bring home some cannoli, a Sicilian, sweet pastry dessert. But Clemenza has another task to do first: murder Paulie Gatto, Vito Corleone's ex-driver, for conspiring with a rival mob family. The line personifies how murders are just a part of the job and nothing more. Today, this phrase is used to mean if you make a mistake, don’t sweat it and move on.
3. “Here’s looking at you kid.” – Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca
Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick Blaine says this several times throughout the movie, most memorably when Rick prepares Ilsa Lund’s (Ingrid Bergman) travel papers for her and Victor. It is alleged that between takes, Bogart said this to Bergman between takes while he taught her poker. It’s a very casual line, especially when Rick says it to a women he has affection for, but it is now commonplace in western culture.
4. “Here’s Johnny” – Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) in The Shining
Jack Torrance has chopped a hole through the bathroom door to get to his wife Wendy when he says this line. It is reported that Nicholson improvised the line during the shooting. However, remember this is 1980, and the biggest person in light night television at the time was Johnny Carson. His sidekick, Ed McMahon, always introduced Carson with “Heeeeeere’s Johnny!” It is one of the most famous cross-cultural references in entertainment history.
5. “I’m walking here!” - Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) in Midnight Cowboy
Dustin Hoffman on the conception of the line:
6. “Funny how?” Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) in Goodfellas
Perhaps the film’s most memorable character and performances, it’s largely believed that Pesci ad-libbed much of his lines and that they were rewritten after the film was shot. This is our introduction to Tommy DeVito as an unstable loose cannon who intimidates those around him based on his unpredictability. Henry Hill casual comments on his humor and DeVito turns happy hour into an interrogation. In the end DeVito tells Hill "I'm just fucking with you," and everyone laughs, with relief.
7. “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in The Silence of the Lambs
Although he only had under twenty-five minutes of camera time, Hopkins won and Oscar for Best Actor for his haunting portrayal of the cannibalistic Dr. Hannibal Lecter. At one point he tells a story to FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) about eating one of his victims. The hissing noise he makes after his line is rumored to be something of a joke Hopkins threw in on his own. He actually never intended it to be added to the final cut, nor so frightening and disturbing.
8. “Like tears in rain.” Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in Blade Runner
It is perhaps the best death soliloquy in film history, and it wasn’t even on script. According to director Ridley Scott and screenwriter David Peoples, it was Rutget Hauer who wrote the speech. They’re were earlier versions of the speech in Peoples’ drafted screenplays, but the night before filming, Hauer chopped it up for the line to fit him. Without Scott’s knowledge, he delivered the speech to applause from the crew with some even crying.
9. “Sir what? Where you about to call me an asshole?!” Sergeant Harmen (R. Lee Ermey) in Full Metal Jacket
Former U.S. Marine sergeant R. Lee Ermey pretty much ad-libbed his entire dialogue in the film. Director, screenwriter, and producer Stanley Kubrick wanted someone with legitimate experience to play the role, and he ended up with the actual thing. Since the film Ermey is often typecast in authority figure roles, most recently this Geico insurance commercial:
10. “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) in Jaws
To avoid Jaws from being too dark, Steve Spielberg turned to his friend Carl Gottlieb to be the primary screenwriter. During a nine-week period he rewrote much of the script to make it wittier. He turned to actors for their help and much of the dialogue written came from improvisations from the talent. However, there were a few created on set, including this gem.