Did Harrison Ford Really Improvise Han Solo’s ‘I Know’ Line in Star Wars?

The climax of The Empire Strikes Back builds. Enemies descend onto Cloud City, forcing the hand of Lando Calrissian to turn over his old friend Han Solo. Darth Vader prepares his trap for Luke Skywalker to freeze him in carbonite, and Lando protests that the process could kill a person. Ominously, Vader says they will test the procedure on Solo.

Brought before the Sith Lord, Han and Princess Leia stare down evil himself. It's possibly the last time the couple will see each other. They gaze into each other's eyes and share a passionate, desperate first kiss. As stormtroopers drag Han away, Leia cries, “I love you!” Despite the dire situation, Han smirks and says one of the most infamous improvised lines in cinema history, “I know.”

han solo and chewbacca the force awakens
Image Courtesy of Lucasfilm

Or was this famous line improvised? This question spurred an urban legend for both cinephiles and Star Wars fans. While researching this piece, it wasn't hard to find Reddit and Quora posts spinning the narrative to deepen the legend. What was difficult was trying to see where the source of this story came from. Adjusting the search engine settings from 1977, when A New Hope was released, up to the year 2000, the earliest article that mentioned any sources of improvisation on Harrison Ford's part came from the literary forum Boston Review. In their review of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, writer Alan A. Stone states, “Gone is the Han Solo character, the all-too-human, wise-cracking hero played so effortlessly by Harrison Ford, who improvised many of his own lines rather than trying to act Lucas's script.” Even this article doesn't confirm that Ford improvised the “I know.” This can't be the original source of the story.

This Google search also doesn't account for online fan forums, which have existed since the internet began. If these forums are hidden behind passwords or created before the days of sites like the Wayback Machine, it's impossible to know if the urban legend began there. There is also the possibility that these rumors began in magazines or fanzines. Not every publication has its archives backed up online. Also, fanzines were a prominent part of the early fandom before the internet, as noted in the excellent documentary Looking for Leia. Those zines were full of letters, theories, and stories shared among fans. Perhaps the rumor started there.

While we might not know the source of where the urban legend began, we can explore what the truth is. Was Han Solo's line “I know” improvised? It depends on who you're asking and what the source is.

In 2010, the director of The Empire Strikes Back, Irvin Kershner, gave an interview with Vanity Fair. When asked by writer Mike Ryan if he had any disputes with George Lucas, Kershner brought up the “I know” scene. According to Kershner, Solo's original answer to Leia's proclamation of love was, “I love you too.” The director and Harrison Ford felt that the line wasn't right for the character, especially since this could have been his last moments alive. Kershner said:

“We kept trying different things and couldn't get the right line. We were into the lunch break, and I said to Harrison try it again and just do whatever comes to mind. That is when Harrison said the line, ‘I know.' After the take, I said to my assistant director, David Tomblin, ‘It's a wrap.' David looked at me in disbelief and said something like, ‘Hold on, we just went to overtime. You're not happy with that, are you?' And I said, yes, it's the perfect Han Solo remark, and so we went to lunch.”

George Lucas wasn't happy about the script change. He felt it was too humorous, and he didn't want to have the audience laugh at the moment. Two scene versions were filmed to compromise with Lucas: Harrison's “I know” and the original script. They showed the “I know” version in a prescreening to see how an audience would react.

The audience did laugh, but not in the way Lucas thought they would. Kershner said, “At the first preview in San Francisco, the house broke up after Han Solo said I know. When the film was over, people came up and said that is the most wonderful line and it worked. So George decided not to have the second screening.” This version of events is a story that Harrison Ford had corroborated in multiple interviews, too, like when he sat down with Jon Favreau during the Cowboys and Aliens tour and in The Empire Strikes Back documentaries. It seems to have been an improvised moment during filming.

Even that story has a conflicting account, thanks to the transcripts of Alan Arnold. He was a journalist allowed on set to create his behind the scene novel Once Upon a Galaxy: A Journal of the Making of The Empire Strikes Back. The day they shot the carbonite freezing scene, Kershner wore a wireless microphone so Arnold could later transcribe his words. Kershner's exchange with Harrison Ford was shared by CBR, which shows that it wasn't an improvised line during a take. It was a longer discussion between scenes as the actor and director went back and forth, talking about different options.

Kershner said in the transcript, “‘ I love you.' And you say, ‘Just remember that, Leia, because I'll be back.' You've got to say, ‘I'll be back.' You must. It's almost contractual!”

Ford answered, “If she says ‘I love you,' and I say ‘I know,' that's beautiful and acceptable and funny.”

a new hope han solo dice
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox/Lucas Film Ltd.

This confirms that Ford came up with the infamous “I know” dialogue, though if this story is true, it wasn't improvised on the spot during a filming take. Arnold also shared in his novel that Carrie Fisher wasn't happy with the script change. She wasn't unhappy with the change; she was upset that she wasn't part of the conversation for such a major scene with her character. It caused a fight on set that day between her and Ford.

Though, the original script dialogue, “Just remember that, Leia, because I'll be back,” was left in 1980's The Empire Strikes Back novelization as it was more than likely written with the original script. There was also one person who always disliked the change: Lawrence Kasden, the scriptwriter for the film. In 1981 in Starlog Magazine, he expressed his displeasure with the change, “I could be the only person who feels this way, but I thought their romance had a touch of falseness about it. Han and Leia's scenes were among what I was proudest of in my script, but they hardly remained.”

While the origins of where the urban legend came from that Ford improvised his infamous line are still unknown, it can be put to rest whether or not the line was improvised. It wasn't; instead, it was a collaborative effort by those involved to create one of the greatest moments in cinema history.

This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.