23 Iconic Movie Lines That Were Actually Improvised

A Few Good Men

Movie-making is fundamentally a collaborative art form. When you have the perfect mix of writers, directors, actors, and such, cinematic magic can be achieved. A good script can make a movie. It is an essential piece of the puzzle that cannot be denied.

But when you hire just the right actors who are talented and in tune with their characters, something else extraordinary can occur. When actors improvise a line or two, sometimes they tap into something so fantastic they are kept in the film. They are many very famous unscripted lines and some that are lesser known. Let's look at 23 movie quotes so fantastic they were kept in the movie.

1. “You're Gonna Need A Bigger Boat,” Jaws (1975)

jaws 1
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

Roy Scheider’s undeniably humorous line in the face of danger is one of, if not the most well-known, improvised movie quotes ever. The line comes just after Scheider’s character, Martin Brody, sees how massive the shark terrorizing the waters is. It's said with such matter-of-fact delivery that one cannot help but laugh despite the imminent threat.

The origin of the line is also quite funny. The production of Jaws was famously riddled with problems. One of these was working off a barge with too small of a support boat, making moving equipment, craft services, and such difficult. The quote became a running gag among the crew when anything went awry, so much so that Scheider began saying it during takes. The line never seemed more appropriate after seeing the shark in all his glory, and thus Scheider made movie history. This quote has been duplicated and parodied many times over and is one of AFI's Greatest Movie Quotes of all time.

2. ” I Love You/I Know,” The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Star Wars Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher
Image Credit: 20th Century-Fox.

It's hard to imagine anyone but Harrison Ford playing the role of Han Solo. He portrayed the roguish pilot with charisma and created one of the most beloved film characters ever. Ford knew his character well and was skilled at showcasing the perfect blend of sincerity and swagger.

The love story between Han and Princess Leia is developed in this scene from the second film of the Star Wars saga. And in the face of separation and his possible death, Leia tells Han, “I Love you.” The script called Han to reply, “I love you, too.” But that didn't seem in character to Ford, so he ad-libbed the response, “I know.” And he was so right to do so. This line (and Ford's delivery) reciprocates Leia’s feelings but in a way that demonstrates Han's bravado. And these lines live on in the hearts of Star Wars fans (many of which incorporate them in wedding rings, matching shirts, and more) forever.

3. “You Can't Handle The Truth,” A Few Good Men (1992)

A Few Good Men
Image Credit: Columbia Pictures.

Jack Nicholson shouting “You can't handle the truth” to Tom Cruise in this famous scene from the courtroom drama is the definition of iconic. Even those who have never seen A Few Good Men know the quote. But many likely do not know that Nicholson also improvised this seminal moment.

The script initially called for Nicholson's character, Colonel Jessup, to say, “You already have the truth.” But on the spot, he decided to shorten the line. Although it changed the meaning slightly, filmmakers did not mind. This makes the moment more powerful and definitively changes the course of the scene.

4. “Here's Looking At You, Kid,” Casablanca (1942)

Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Casablanca is undoubtedly one of cinema's masterpieces with countless iconic lines. The screenplay is impeccable, but one of the most iconic quotes was not scripted. “Here's looking at you, kid,” is something Rick says to Ilsa multiple times in the film to express affection.

The origin of the line is just as sweet. While making the film, Humphrey Bogart taught Ingrid Bergman how to play poker. This endearment was something he said to her while teaching her, and Bogart thought it would work well in the film, thus solidifying the film's and Bogart's place in cinema history.

5. “I Am Iron Man,” Iron Man (2008)

Robert Downey Jr. suited up as Iron Man (2008)
Source: Paramount Pictures.

It's said that quite a deal of the film that kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe was improvised. And Robert Downey Jr. became known for doing so in many MCU films. But none are quite as seminal as how he ended the first Iron Man film.

At a press conference, Downey decided to have his character, Tony Stark, break the tradition of superheroes hiding their identities from the public. Instead, he bluntly, firmly, and confidently declares, “I am Iron Man,” changing the course of the film and what was to come. This line came back in moving and brilliant fashion in Avengers: Endgame, spectacularly bringing the character full circle.

6. “I Would Be Proud to Partake of Your Pecan Pie,” When Harry Met Sally (1989)

When Harry Met Sally Castle Rock Entertainment 2
Image Credit: Castle Rock Entertainment.

While most people know about the infamous improvised line, “I'll have what she's having,” less know about Billy Crystal's fun unscripted moment about pecan pie. As his character Harry and Meg Ryan's Sally are walking around a museum, he begins speaking in a funny accent. When he says, “But I would be proud to partake in your pecan pie,” you can see Ryan laugh and briefly look off-camera. She was looking to director Rob Reiner who motioned to go with it. And she did, mimicking and repeating the line. It's not as well known, but just as delightful.

7. “Take The Cannoli,” The Godfather (1972)

godfather resize
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

In the original script of this scene from The Godfather, the lead enforcer, Clemenza, played by Richard Castellano, was supposed to say, “Leave the gun.” Adding the second part to the line takes the scene to another level. In response to the attempted assassination of their father, Don Vito Corleone, his sons Michael and Sonny order Clemenza to take care of all involved parties, which includes the unfortunate victim in this scene.

Adding “Take the cannoli” demonstrates how run-of-the-mill murder is for these individuals. It's as if they are ticking off rudimentary things on their daily checklist. It's decidedly cold and perfectly encapsulates the realities of the mafia.

8. “Look At Me. I'm The Captain Now,” Captain Phillips (2013)

Captain Phillips Tom Hanks, Corey Johnson
Image Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing.

It's incredible to discover that the most famous line from this gripping film based on a true story was not scripted. Even more remarkable is that the source came from an actor with no former acting experience. In the scene, Captain Phillips, played by Tom Hanks, is confronted by Somali pirates, including their leader, Muse, played by Barkhad Abdi.

Muse looks at Phillips intensely and says, “Look at me! I am the captain now.” It evokes confidence, elicits fear, and creates an already intense scene into a seminal moment in the film. And this all came from an actor acting in his first film. The brilliance from Abdi that was off the cuff proves that even those with little experience can create a memorable movie moment.

9. “I Got A Jar Of Dirt,” Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2007)

Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Man's Chest Johnny Depp
Image Credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.

It's undeniable that Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow is a unique, colorful, and memorable character. One reason for this is because of Depp’s remarkable performance. He perfectly created Sparrow's persona and was so in tune with the character that small moments were given new life.

In this scene from Dead Man's Chest, Depp is meant to boast about possessing this jar of dirt to Davy Jones, believing the cursed pirate's heart was inside. Instead, Depp made the scene infinitely funnier and more memorable by improvising an impromptu tune, singing, “I got a jar of dirt! I got a jar of dirt! And guess what's inside it!” He then falls down the ship's stairs, drops the jar, and sees it shatter with no heart in sight. Punctuating the scene with the comedic song demonstrates the brilliance of Depp’s portrayal.

10. “I Don't Care,” The Fugitive (1993)

Harrison Ford as Richard Kimble in The Fugitive
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

In this thriller that stars Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones, Ford plays Dr. Richard Kimble, an escaped convict falsely accused of murdering his wife, while Jones plays US Marshall Samuel Gerard, who is in pursuit. In the scene in question, tensions arise when Gerard confronts Kimble, who tells him, “I didn't kill my wife.” Jones was meant to reply, ” That isn't my problem.” Instead, Jones ad-libbed the much harsher and matter-of-fact “I don't care,” which feels so in tune with Gerard's character and the type of persona Jones has become known for men of few words who are gruff and straightforward. This moment shows how an actor's instincts are invaluable.

11. John Candy's Monologue, Home Alone (1990)

Home Alone, John Candy, Catherine O'Hara
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

In the classic family comedy, John Candy appeared in a few scenes as a favor to writer John Hughes. Reuniting with fellow SCTV co-star Catharine O'Hara, the two actors were used to improvisation and knew how to create scenes organically. He did his scenes in one day and improvised and ad-libbed most of his lines.

The best is when Candy's Polka King Gus Polinski reassures O’Hara’s Kate McCallister that she is not a bad parent. He does so by discussing his and fellow band members' lack of parenting skills, including a long story of him leaving his son at a funeral parlor once. Candy is so natural and tells his story in a way that it must have been scripted. But no, that was just Candy's impeccable comedic improv skills on display, creating an unforgettable and hilarious movie moment.

12. “You Smell Like Beef and Cheese. You Don't Smell Like Santa,” Elf (2003)

Elf, Will Ferrill
Image Credit: New Line Cinema.

It feels like only yesterday that Elf became an instant holiday classic. And perhaps that's because it's one we watch yearly, quoting our favorite lines from Buddy the Elf. And it should be no surprise that one of those favorite lines may be one that Will Ferrell improvised, given that he is known for frequently ad-libbing and riffing in his movies.

Will Ferrell recalled on The Kelly Clarkson Show that he improvised many lines, including some at this moment. One such scene involved the arrival of Santa at Gimbal’s Department Store. Buddy is from the North Pole and can see that this man isn't the real Santa and is angry he's trying to impersonate him. While he wasn't positive about whether “You sit in a throne of lies” was of his doing, he did say, “You stink. You smell like beef and cheese. You don't smell like Santa,” was something he came up with. And the film is all the better for it, adding another scene of comedic gold to the movie.

13. “Stole My Line,” Good Will Hunting (1997)

Sean Maguire in a session with Will Hunting
Image Credit: Miramax Films.

Robin Williams was one of the kings of improvisation. And he had a singular talent for comedy. But his dramatic skills were just as exceptional and were on full display in his Academy Award-winning role of Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. At the end of the film, Williams brings all three of these skill sets, improvising a line that is equal parts touching and funny.

In the film, Sean told Will (Matt Damon) how he met his wife and didn't go to game six of the World Series with his friends because he had “to go see about a girl.” At the movie's end, Will writes this in a note to Sean explaining his leaving town. And Williams proceeds to chuckle about how he “stole my line.” It was the perfect conclusion to the film and the characters' warm, supportive, and ribbing relationship. It's no wonder the screenwriters Damon himself and Ben Affleck were delighted by Williams' ad-lib.

14. “I Didn't Know You Could Read,” Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (2002)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

The Harry Potter films can be lauded with a great deal of praise on multiple platitudes. One of these is the impeccable casting of the movies. Rarely discussed is how perfect the casting of Tom Felton was as Draco Malfoy. And this particular scene exemplifies that.

In the second Harry Potter film, Harry and Ron drink Polyjuice Potion, which can make them look like another person. In this instance, they disguise themselves as Draco's friends Crabbe and Goyle to spy on him. When the potion begins to wear off, and Harry’s glasses are needed again, Draco asks in confusion why he's wearing them. He says it's for reading, to which Draco replies, “Reading? I didn't know you could read.”

It's ridiculous to think that his friend wouldn't be able to read and yet so perfect simultaneously because it sounds just like the kind of insulting thing Draco would say. Felton's delivery is spot on, punctuating the scene with humor the filmmakers weren't expecting.

15. “Here's Johnny,” The Shining (1980)

Jack Torrance bursts through the door
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Here we have another example of a film's most iconic line being improvised by actor Jack Nicholson. In this horror classic, the Overlook Hotel makes Jack Torrance go mad. He begins to terrorize and chase his wife with an axe, cutting through the bathroom door. As he breaks through, he says, “Here's Johnny,” which is a take on the introduction of Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Nicholson's unscripted moment is now the most recognizable scene from The Shining, tinged with genuine terror and dark humor.

16. “I'm In A Glass Case of Emotion,” Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

Will Ferrell in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
Image Credit: DreamWorks Pictures.

Given that Anchorman's cast includes Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, and Steve Carell, it's not surprising to learn that the movie has many improvisation moments. However, the best has to be Ferrell's emotional phone booth ramblings.

The context of the scene is straightforward. Ron Burgandy’s fame-hungry behavior toward others comes back to haunt him, and he feels completely defeated. Amongst his over-the-top wailing and gibberish, he cries, “I'm in a glass case of emotion!” And it's perfectly ridiculous and hilarious.

17. Genie's Celebrity Impressions, Aladdin (1992)

The Genie offers Aladdin three wishes
Image Credit: Walt Disney Feature Animation.

Animation is different in terms of improvisation because artists create the animation after actors have recorded their voice work. In the case of Robin Williams and his portrayal of the Genie in Aladdin, filmmakers had a lot of footage to work with. They encouraged Williams to do the fast-talking ad-libbing and impressions he was known for. Consequently, Williams just went for it, and animator Eric Goldberg brought them to colorful life.

Williams makes hilarious impressions that he made up as he was recording. These include Jack Nicholson, Rodney Dangerfield, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Peter Lorre, and Groucho Marx. Goldberg then incorporated these impressions into the character's animation, resulting in a combination that helped to create one of the most extraordinary and memorable Disney characters of all time.

18. Many Of Kate Hudson's Lines, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003)

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003)
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

In this rom-com that stars Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey, director Donald Petrie encouraged the actors to improvise and have fun during their scenes. Hudson, especially, did so in multiple scenes, and they were all so funny they were kept in the film.

In the scene where their characters, Andi and Ben, are at a movie theater watching Sleepless in Seattle, Hudson improvised the lines, “I always wanted a man like Tom Hanks” and “You can't watch Meg Ryan for an hour without thinking about another girl.” But perhaps even funnier are the tiny little lines she says during the poker game Andi interrupts with Ben and his buddies. She speaks at one guy's cards and reveals what they are, telling him to “Go for the straight!” She also spontaneously opens to blinds from the kitchen and screams, “Peak-boo!”! These are natural yet kooky and perfectly play into the fact that she's trying to act as crazy as possible to turn him off. And the movie is all the better for these little improvisations.

19. “Good Thing It Wasn't the Fish,” You've Got Mail (1998)

Youve Got Mail 1998 Warner Bros MSN e1694447343346
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

This line uttered by Tom Hanks may not be one of You've Got Mail's iconic quotes, but it is still a funny little moment in a film filled with these small lines. Add them all up and get the film's unique and charming flavor.

In the scene in question, Hank's character Joe brings his young relatives (believe it or not, his brother and aunt) to his rival Kathleen's children's bookstore. As he leaves, Joe's hands are full of the books he bought, balloons, and a goldfish in a plastic water bag. As he struggles to hold onto everything and close the door behind him, the balloon accidentally gets caught. When he opens the door back up, Hanks says, “Good thing it wasn't the fish.” According to the DVD commentary with director Nora Ephron, Hanks made up the line on the spot and made everyone laugh. His line and everyone's reaction were so genuine; there was no question about whether to keep the moment in the movie.

20. Many of Miracle Max's Lines, The Princess Bride (1987)

The Princess Bride, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright
Image Credit: 20th Century Fox / MGM.

When you hire Billy Crystal, chances are you will get instances of golden improvisation. In The Princess Bride, his role as Miracle Max was brimming with lines that Crystal created. Two, in particular, are especially funny: “Why don't you give me a paper cut and our some lemon juice on it,” and “True love is the greatest thing in the world, except for a good MLT- a mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich.” They're said quickly and spontaneously but are very funny and define the character in his brief appearance.

21. “Can't Go Anywhere,” The Holiday (2006)

the Holiday Jack Black
Image Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing.

In a scene where Kate Winslet and Jack Black's characters are going through a video store, and Black is playing a game of “imitate the movie score,” there is an entirely unplanned moment. Some may think Black's game is all off the cuff. And while it did come from him, it was worked out beforehand.

No, the unscripted moment comes from a brief cameo by actor Dustin Hoffman. He and director Nancy Meyers are friends, and their daughters are as well, and when he stumbled across them filming, she asked Hoffman if he wanted to be in the movie.

And quickly and with no planning, Hoffman was put in the scene wearing what he had on and with no makeup. As Black starts singing the theme from The Graduate, we see Hoffman behind them, who is meant to be playing himself. He mutters, “Can't go anywhere.” This ad-libbed mumble to himself is hilarious, completely unplanned, and, as Meyers says in the DVD commentary, one of the movie's best moments.

22. “I’m Buggin’ Myself,” Clueless (1995)

Clueless Alicia Silverstone, Paul Rudd
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Paul Rudd is another actor known for improvisation in his movies, so there are many to choose from. But I chose this small ad-lib from one of his early roles because it sounds like it could've been scripted and because of his co-star Donald Faison's reaction.

At the movie's end, best friends Cher, Dionne, and Tai are attending a wedding with their boyfriends, Josh, Murray, and Travis. The girls are all discussing what they want their weddings to be like to which Murray says, “I'm totally buggin,” and Josh replies, “I’m buggin' myself.” This works perfectly and shows how good Rudd's instincts are because Josh, the oldest one, isn't up on the lingo but wants to relate to everyone. The way Faison bursts out laughing was too good to cut out of the movie.

23. “I Want My Pink Shirt Back,” Mean Girls (2004)

Mean Girls (2004) Lacey Chabert, Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Amanda Seyfried
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Mean Girls has no shortage of quotable lines that continue to permeate the cultural zeitgeist. But one might be surprised that actor Daniel Franzese improvised an amusing line. He plays Damien, one-third of the team (including sardonic Janis and new girl Cady), whose plan is to take down mean girl Regina George by infiltrating their group, the Plastics.

One of the things Damian does is lend Cady a pink shirt of his so she can fit in with the group. When Cady begins to take her undercover work too seriously, everything comes to a head when Damian and Janis drive up to a party they weren't invited to. As they all argue, Franzese spontaneously yells, “I want my pink shirt back,” which sounds like something the character would say and is utterly hilarious. It's another quote in a long line of Mean Girls lines fans love to quote regularly.

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Marianne Paluso is a freelance writer and artist and holds a Masters Degree in English and Children’s Literature from San Diego State University. Inspired by her favorite films, television, theme parks and all things pop culture and geek related, she especially loves Disney, classic films, fairy tales, period dramas, musicals, adventures, mysteries, and a good rom-com. She joined Wealth of Geeks in 2021, and has also contributed to The Nerd Machine, Catholic News Agency, Christianity Today, and The La Jolla Light. She writes on her own website TheGirlyNerd.com, creates art that is sold on Redbubble and Etsy, and also partakes in the occasional Disneybound, cosplay, and YouTube video. She resides in San Diego, California.