Sorry Shakespeare, but “To be? Or not to be?” – that’s actually TWO questions – can I get a script doctor in here?     

A great screenwriting professor once told me, “A screenplay is like a chalk drawing – it’s a beautiful thing until they stomp all over it like a bunch of circus ponies.” Many writers can be precious with their work, but to the typewriter-jamming chagrin of some Hollywood screenwriters, a movie is a living thing, and sometimes changes have to happen at the very last split-second  even as film is rolling.

Truly, cinema is a collaborative medium, and that means not everything is going to go down exactly the way it was sketched out in the script. If improv classes teach us anything, it is to roll with the punches and say “Yes, and” even if your scene-partner happens to be a cab careening right into your ribcage.

After all, spontaneity is the spice of life (even more than cumin!), and there are many notable examples that prove an off-the-cuff remark or unplanned image can be the most memorable part of a movie.

Here are six of the very best representations of this phenomenon:  

Do you see what I see?

Casablanca (1942)

As time goes by, this classic has us beginning beautiful friendships by rounding up all the usual suspects. But one of the most famous lines in the film has Humphrey Bogart’s Rick lay down a quip to Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman): “Here’s looking at you, kid.” It’s a tear jerker at the end, recalling their time in Paris - but it wasn’t originally in the script. The rumor goes that during breaks on set Bogie was teaching Bergman to play poker and refining her English at the same time. “Here’s looking at you” was part of her poker terminology  he liked it so much, he added it in. I guess it’s better than telling your departing lady love, “I’ll see you, and raise you five.”  

Dance Macabre

The Seventh Seal (1957)

The finale of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 masterpiece features the grim reaper eerily leading silhouettes of his victims off in a dance against a suitably depressing, overcast Swedish sky. It makes for as unsettling an ending as what happens when you actually eat lutefisk. But this sequence had not been in the original script (nor in Bergman’s play, on which the film was based). In fact, by the time they filmed the “dance of death”, the featured actors had all gone home, making it a challenge to backlight the scene so no one could be recognized. Technicians and some lucky tourists were asked to don costumes and pretend to be the characters prancing off to their final resting places. Come to Sweden, be in our movies, and dance with Death!  

Look both ways

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

According to the story as told by Dustin Hoffman (and we have no reason to doubt Rainman), the scene when ‘Ratso’ Rizzo is almost clobbered by a taxicab and screams “Hey, we’re walking here!” wasn’t scripted. Director John Schlesinger apparently did not have a permit to stop traffic on the NYC streets and had to film guerilla-style with a hidden camera in a van. In one of over a dozen takes, the actors, Hoffman and Jon Voight, started crossing the street when a taxi ran the red light. Hoffman claims that as he slammed on the hood of the runaway cab, what he wanted to say was: “Hey, we’re SHOOTING here!” I can think of a few other unscripted words I’d have had for that cabbie.   

Orange you glad?

The Godfather (1972)

Based on the Mario Puzo book, director Coppola took some liberties with the script by adding a cat to one dramatic scene, and allowing the actor playing Clemenza (Richard Castellano) to improvise the now famous line: “Take the Cannoli” (Castellano claims he just remembered the earlier scene where his wife had asked him to pick up the sweet treats and said it). But the unplanned sequence which most surprised me was Don Vito Corleone’s (Marlon Brando) last, where Marlon Brando came up with a wonderful piece of business spontaneously. Goofing around with the young boy playing his grandson, Brando decided to put in some orange peel fangs – the kid was truly and justifiably terrified. (P.S. for a juicy treat, pay attention to how oranges track throughout the film – you’ll be amazed!)

Who's the boss

Taxi Driver (1976)

Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) is, hands down, the poster child for mentally unstable taxi drivers  and yes, there are still a few of them cruising around Manhattan. Interestingly, his famous “Are you talking to me?” scene was improvised. In fact, the entire scene had no written dialogue and was based only on the stage direction: “Travis looks in the mirror.” Director Martin Scorsese claims he got the inspiration for the scene from a sequence in “Reflections in a Golden Eye” (1967), when Brando mumbles to his own reflection. The famous line, DeNiro says, was actually a kind of impression of Bruce Springsteen, whom he’d seen interacting with the crowd at a concert. So if the scene were longer he could have added “Are you talking to me? ‘Cause tramps like us... baby, we were born to run.”

Sword Playing

Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

At the Cairo bazaar, Marion Ravenswood (Karen Allen) and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) are chased by merciless foes through midtown-at-rush-hour-like throngs. All at once, the crowd clears for a huge black clad swordsman spinning his scimitar like a Cuisinart and laughing ominously. Indy, looking exhausted, dispatches the fellow with a quick draw on his pistol  but that was not supposed to happen. The day of shooting called for a complicated fight scene, and Ford, suffering from food poisoning, could hardly lift his whip (we mean that literally.) After trying to film the original sequence with Ford looking pretty pathetic, director Spielberg agreed to allow Indy to shoot first.

Some other great films rely almost entirely on improvisation to build their dialogue, creating instant movie magic. Be spontaneous and watch one tonight. And let us know about your own favorite unscripted movie moment on Facebook.   

Previously:  18 Famous Move Quotes You've Been Getting Wrong

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