Sometimes screenwriters take months agonizing over the perfect line. Other times, actors make them up on the spot.
10. Jaws - “You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat”
The most famous line in Spielberg’s classic proto-blockbuster and one of the most iconic and imitated of all time was never written. Unlike Quint’s legendary “U.S.S. Indianapolis” monologue, which has murky origins (did Robert Shaw make it up? Did Spielberg tap Apocalypse Now writer John Milius to come in and write it?), Jaws screenwriter Carl Gottlieb fully owns up the fact that star Roy Scheider came up with the epic line off the top of his head. “The actors were terrific about ad-libbing,” Gottlieb told Boston magazine. “Occasionally someone will compliment me on the line, ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat.’ But Roy ad-libbed that on the set.”
9. Ghostbusters – Louis Tully Entertains
Ever sit there during Ghostbusters and marvel at how Rick Moranis is able to deliver a breathless, almost non-stop monologue during his big party scene? How could he possibly have memorized all that? Well, he didn’t. The SCTV vet, who was no stranger to improv comedy, basically made it all up as he went. In the original script, Louis Tully was a straight-laced businessman type originally meant to be played by John Candy (with a thick German accent, if Candy got his way). The big guy had to drop out, and fellow Canuck funnyman Moranis made Tully his own.
8. Full Metal Jacket – Gunnery Sgt. Hartman Welcomes the New Recruits
The scene that actor and actual former Marine drill sergeant R. Lee Ermey has built an entire career on feels so genuine because, well, it was. Ermey was basically typecast because he lived this role in real life and knew how to bust rookie asses. “Gunnery Sgt. R. Lee Ermey was originally hired as our technical consultant,” says actor Kevyn Major Howard (“Rafterman”). “I heard that when Stanley [Kubrick] saw [Ermey’s] audition tape he tore the original script in half. Mr. Kubrick said just put the camera on Lee and let him run.”
7. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – “Something D-O-O economics. Voodoo economics.”
Like R. Lee Ermey, Ben Stein has built an entire acting career off of one eternally iconic scene. And, like Ermey, it was all Stein. “John Hughes, the director and producer and writer, asked me to ad-lib two scenes: One, teaching, which was something I was familiar with, and, two, taking attendance,” said Stein. “When I finished the scene, everyone on the set was gathered around and started applauding. I thought they were applauding because they'd learned something about economics. I later learned they were applauding because it was so boring.”
6. Caddyshack – “It’s in the Hole!”
Bill Murray is well known for tossing aside scripts and winging it (nearly all of his Ghostbusters quips were his own), but what makes this Carl Spackler scene stand out is the fact that it is, still, one of the most referenced and quoted scenes in movie history. And it was done with one piece of direction – Director Harold Ramis told Murray to imagine a kid playing in the yard doing his own play by play. “Nobody wrote a word of script,” said Murray. “It just came from my head into the camera. I did it in one take – but knew it had worked.” On a side note, Spackler’s meeting with Ty Webb (“People think I’m an idiot or something because all I do is cut lawns for a living.” “No, people don’t say that about you as far as you know”) is also entirely improv’d on the spot by SNL vets Murray and Chevy Chase. [Better quality video here.]
5. Raiders of the Lost Ark – “It’s Not the Years, Honey, It’s the Mileage.”
Yeah, yeah, everyone knows that some of Raiders’ best scenes were spur of the moment (like Harrison Ford’s bowel distress leading to Indiana Jones shooting rather than fighting the Arab swordsman), but what makes Indy’s “mileage” land stand out is that it seems so perfectly written. It’s the kind of line you’d expect a screenwriter to put down and then pat himself on the back for so expertly capturing the soul of his character in one quip. But no. “You can only write so much on paper,” admitted Steven Spielberg. “Once Harrison became Indiana Jones he brought a lot of humor, a lot of irony. He thought up a wonderful line that none of us thought of, thought it up the day we shot it: ‘it’s not the years, sweetheart, it’s the mileage.’ That was a line that Harrison thought up.” For more Indy goodness, check out our list of the Unusng Heroes form the series.
4. Taxi Driver – “You Talkin’ To Me?”
If you were screenwriter Paul Schrader, wouldn’t you try and take credit for a scene so iconic it’s even quoted by people who only pretend to have seen Taxi Driver? It’s right up there with “Rosebud” and “May the Force Be With You.” But Schrader freely admits that it was all Bobby D. “The most memorable piece of dialogue in the film is an improvisation: the “Are you talking to me?” part,” says Schrader. “In the script it just says Travis speaks to himself in the mirror. Bobby asked me what he would say, and I said, “Well, he’s a little kid playing with guns and acting tough.” So De Niro used this rap that an underground New York comedian had been using at the same time as the basis for his lines.”
3. The Shining – “Heeeeere’s Johnny!”
Nicholson has his fair share of signature lines, but his off-the-cuff homage to Ed McMahon tops the list for not only being a completely batshit, left-field reference in the middle of a paranoid psychodrama, but also for hatching straight from the mind of ol’ Jack. In a 1980 interview, Nicholson said, “That [line] was my idea. Stanley [Kubrick] had been living in England for years and isn’t familiar with ‘The Johnny Carson Show.’ He agreed that that was the kind of thing the guy would do.”
2. The Silence of the Lambs – The Hiss
The immortal Hannibal Lecter line, “I ate his liver, with some fava beans and a nice Chianti” was in the Silence of the Lambs script. However, Anthony Hopkins decided to freak out co-star Jodie Foster and punctuate the line with an odd hiss/chewing sound that not only did the job (Foster was suitably creeped out) it made the final cut. Which, according to editor Craig McKay, was not unusual. “Tony, in almost 99% of the picture – it’s his very first take of the scene. That’s the only time I’ve ever had that experience.” Just imagine that line without the hiss. (Harry and Lloyd can’t.)
1. The Warriors – “Waaaaarioooors, Come Out to PLAAAAAAAY”
When it came to the end of his cult classic The Warriors, director Walter Hill had a problem. The scene where The Rogues corner the Warriors on a Coney Island beach was missing…something. Luckily, he had professional creep David Patrick Kelly already on hand, playing Rogues leader Luther. “I don’t care what you do,” Hill told Kelly. “Taunt them. Sing to them. And we're only going to have about 5 minutes to work something out because we've gotta shoot." Pressed for time, Kelly grabbed some beer bottles and dug into some twisted childhood memories (go figure)."I lived in downtown Manhattan in a kind of scary neighborhood,” said Kelly. “And there was a fellow of kind of shady background who lived next door to me. He would always kind of threaten me or make fun of me by singing [in the same rhythm as the Warriors taunt] 'Dave…Daaaaaave….DAAAVE…' It was scary, and I thought, ‘We can use that for Luther’.” Throw in the clinking bottles, and Hill recalls, “There are certain moments where you say to yourself, ‘This is gold’.”