The Best Improvised Scenes in Movie History
No offense to the world’s screenwriters, but many of the greatest scenes in cinematic history stand on the shoulders of improvisation. These include when actors summon up full chunks of off-script dialogue; wordless scenes; off-the-cuff remarks; or, as you’ll find out shortly, one single movement. RealClearLife has curated a list of the greatest improvised scenes in movie history below.
Martin Sheen Freaks Out in Apocalypse Now – There is nothing more disconcerting than watching a piss-drunk Martin Sheen, clad only in underwear, dancing around a hotel room and slicing up his hand. (Remember, this man became your president of the United States in The West Wing!) The entirety of the scene was ad-libbed by Sheen.
Roy Scheider ‘Needs a Bigger Boat’ in Jaws – The first time the audience—as well as Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), Quint (Robert Shaw), and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss)—sees the shark in Jaws is a huge pre-climax climax. When Scheider slowly backs into Quint’s cabin and deadpans, “You’re going to need a bigger boat,” he was swimming into uncharted, off-script territory, too.
Joe Pesci’s ‘Funny Guy’ Scene in Goodfellas – After Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) tells a particularly hilarious (and expletive-laden) story to his mafioso pals at the club and Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) tells DeVito he’s “really funny.” Which the actor Pesci took as a cue to spit back in Liotta’s face one of the better unscripted tirades in cinematic history.
This Is Spinal Tap‘s ‘Amps Go to 11’ Scene – If you were a fan of VH1’s series Behind the Music, the best parts were listening to the insane stories rock stars told of their lives on the road. Director Rob Reiner captured this to a tee in 1984’s rock doc spoof, This Is Spinal Tap, with the entirety of the script being improvised. Our favorite scene is when Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) takes Reiner on a tour of his gear room, showing him one particular Marshall amp.
Jack Nicholson’s ‘Here’s Johnny!’ Scene in The Shining – Well known for being a drill sergeant on set, director Stanley Kubrick ironically allowed many of his actors to go off script—sometimes, to great effect. One of the best examples? This one from Jack Nicholson in The Shining. (If you’re interested in seeing how Nicholson summoned his rage-filled character for the scene, watch this behind-the-scenes clip.)
Harrison Ford Shoots Swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark – As you know, we here at RealClearLife are big Harrison Ford fans. So, of course, the actor makes this list, with one of the single greatest improv scenes in action movie history. According to the original script, a sword fight was supposed to ensue. But Ford took the action into his own hands—literally.
Casablanca‘s Final Scene – You likely never thought twice about the origins of that iconic line, “Here’s looking at you kid,” that Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine speaks to Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund at the end of Casablanca. But that one came out of the ether. It was apparently a phrase Bogart used between scenes to teach poker to Bergman.
Anthony Hopkins rapid-fire slurp-hiss in Silence of the Lambs – You’ve probably tried to conveniently erase this scene from your mind, because it scared the crap out of you back in 1991. We’re here to resurrect it in all its improvised glory. (Well, at least the part that made your skin crawl.) That would be the slurp-hissing sound Hopkins makes at the end of his line about eating a plate of someone with fava beans and a nice chianti (which Hopkins pronounces key-AN-tee). Enjoy.