When Inspiration Strikes
"A Few Good Men" had a great screenplay, by Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin, yet not all of its best lines were in the original script. Here, to celebrate the beauty of a brilliant ad-lib—and to mark Jack Nicholson's 80th birthday—are 21 of the best impromptu lines from the 1992 Rob Reiner film and other classic movies.
A Few Good Men (1992)
"You can't handle the truth!"
Jack Nicholson's ad-lib improved on the line in the original screenplay: "You already have the truth."
"Here's looking at you, kid."
Humphrey Bogart first said this off camera, while teaching Ingrid Bergman how to play poker between takes, and then the phrase came out spontaneously during one of the Paris flashback scenes. It would become a recurring line in the movie, repeated most memorably near the end.
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
"I'm walkin' here!"
As Dustin Hoffman recalled in Filmmaker magazine, he was genuinely angry when this taxi ran a red light and almost hit him and Jon Voight. But Hoffman stayed in character.
The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
"Oh, don't be ridiculous, Andrea, everybody wants this. Everybody wants to be us."
The three-time Oscar winner captured the imperious attitude of fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly with this improvised line. But when filming was finished, she went back to being Meryl Streep and donated the designer wardrobe she wore in the movie to charity.
The Godfather (1972)
"Leave the gun, take the cannoli."
Director Francis Ford Coppola added "Don't forget the cannoli" to the script just before shooting the scene. Then Bronx-born actor Richard Castellano made the line his own.
Taxi Driver (1976)
"Are you talkin' to me?"
Robert De Niro brilliantly improvised the entire scene, which grew out of a single sentence in the screenplay: "Travis looks in the mirror."
Young Frankenstein (1974)
Marty Feldman, as Igor, kept shifting the hump on his back as a joke for the other cast members. After someone noticed, that improvisation too was worked into the script.
"Molly, you in danger, girl."
Whoopi Goldberg put her own spin on many lines in the script, and that led to an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
"What do you mean funny? Funny how? … Funny like I'm a clown, I amuse you?"
Joe Pesci based this dialogue on an encounter with an actual mobster he'd had years earlier at a restaurant where Pesci was employed. Director Martin Scorsese gave him and Ray Liotta the go-ahead to improvise the scene; the other actors had no idea what was coming.
"You're gonna need a bigger boat."
Roy Scheider didn't have a line right after his close encounter with a Great White, so he made this one up.
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
"It's such a fine line between stupid and clever."
Rob Reiner's mockumentary involved so much improvisation that the three lead actors were given writing credits.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
"You're an errand boy, sent by a grocery clerk."
On location Marlon Brando, who hadn't bothered to memorize his lines, folded up pages of the screenplay and turned them into a paper hat, which he put on his head. Brando later ad-libbed some 18 minutes of dialogue for his character, Colonel Kurtz.
The Third Man (1949)
"In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed. They produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."
Only Orson Welles would have the confidence to add his own lines to a screenplay by Graham Greene.
Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Anthony Hopkins made an unexpected hissing sound right after delivering this memorable line: "A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti." The actor intended it to be a joke, but director Jonathan Demme kept it in the movie, along with Jodie Foster's stunned reaction.
Animal House (1978)
"I'm a zit—get it?
John Belushi improvised the whole cafeteria scene, starting by stuffing his face as he piled up food on his tray.
When Harry Met Sally (1989)
"I would be proud to partake of your pecan pie."
Meg Ryan cracked up when Billy Crystal said this unscripted line, but director Rob Reiner signaled her to go with it.
"Squeal like a pig!"
The most disturbing line in the movie was improvised on set in an effort to clean up the dialogue, with the hope that "Deliverance" could eventually be shown on television.
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
"Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!"
Peter Sellers, who played three characters in Stanley Kubrick's Cold War satire, ad-libbed much of his dialogue. The lines were later "retroscripted"—added to the screenplay after they were spoken.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
"Son of a bitch, he stole my line."
According to co-star Matt Damon, who co-wrote the script, Robin Williams came out with a different line for each take of the final scene. When he delivered this one, Damon recalled in Boston magazine, "It was like a bolt, it was just one of those holy-shit moments where, like, that's it."
The Shining (1980)
Director Stanley Kubrick, who lived in England, didn't know the reference to Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," and Jack Nicholson's dark joke nearly ended up on the cutting room floor.
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