There are dozens of lists online noting famous scenes or lines in movies that were improvised on the spot. However, as awesome as it is to know that “We’re going to need a bigger boat” was something that was thought up by Roy Scheider on the day of shooting, we wanted to do one better. So here here are 10 people that didn’t just improvise scenes, they improvised entire characters. Characters like …
10. The Janitor – Scrubs
Neil Flynn plays the eponymous Janitor in Scrubs, a seemingly insane custodian who dreams only of commanding a squirrel army — truly the dream of the common man. It was actually originally conceived that the janitor would be a one-time character, but Flynn bossed his first day so well that the director himself insisted that they make him into a mainstay character.
Want a source on that? How about hearing it straight from Zach Braff himself? In his Reddit AMA, Braff revealed that not only was Neil so good at acting that he made it into the main cast just by being hilarious, but he made up so many of his lines that the script would sometimes just say “Neil makes something up and leaves.” You know you’re good at acting when the very people who conceived your character can’t think of lines funnier than the ones you can make up on the spot.
9. Wikus van der Merwe – District 9
District 9 is the story of Wikus van der Merwe and his alien best friend, Christopher. Though it’s never explained why Wikus has a far more alien-sounding name than Chris, there isn’t really time, since the entire film revolves around Wikus slowly turning into an alien, culminating in him shooting a South African warlord in the face while wearing a robot lobster fighting suit. In a rather unique twist, the entire film is filmed like a pseudo-documentary on Wikus and his eventual alien transformation. All documentaries should end with robot lobster fighting suits. All of them.
According to Sharlto Copley (Wikus), the film had no script to speak of. In other words, every line Wikus says is completely improvised, up to and including all that screaming and swearing he did. The was presumably done to keep the feel of a documentary, but you have to admit, it’s kind of impressive that, for 9 months, Copley turned up on set after 2 hours of make up and was trusted to just wing it for 7 hours.
8. The Genie – Aladdin
The Genie in Aladdin was a character specifically written for Robin William, mainly due to his immense amount of improvisational skill. Being a magical Genie with unlimited God-like power, the Genie naturally spends most of his time morphing into pop-culture figures that wouldn’t exist in their world, and thus make no sense within the context of the film itself, but luckily, who cares?
It’s reported that hours upon hours of material was recorded by Williams, the vast majority of it thought up by Williams himself. In fact, he recorded so much that the crew were at a loss as to how to boil it down to just his funniest stuff. Say what you want about the man, but when you can walk into a Disney studio, ignore the script, have the entire crew rolling on the floor laughing, and walk out with a paycheck, you win at making movies and have struck a severe blow at the heart of capitalism.
7. Dwight Schrute – The Office
The Office is a show revolving round, well, an office, in a faux-documentary style. Though it may not seem it, the show is 100 percent scripted. Everything you see, every um, every ah, and every pause is literally written right there in the script. With a few exceptions, of course.
As revealed in this interview, both Steve Carrell and Rainn Wilson improvise quite a few of their lines and jokes. However, it’s noted that Rainn is more prone to this; for example, during the first season episode Health Care, Wilson was able to list off several made up diseases, cracking up the entire cast in the process. Because all actors are required by law to know all fictional diseases, in case they ever decide to remake Outbreak.
6. Seth – Superbad
Superbad is one of the best received comedies of recent times, starring Jonah Hill, Michael Cera and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as a bunch of teens who want nothing more to feel what it’s like to be inside of a woman. Basically it’s American Pie for the current generation, only with a much less awesome soundtrack.
Jonah Hill, who plays Seth, along with both Cera and Mintz-Plasse, improvised a lot of their lines. Though the main story and actions of the cast were scripted from the start, the three young actors were given a lot of leeway with how they interpreted the script. For example, in this interview, director Judd Apatow (notorious for letting actors improvise) notes that, due to the sheer amount of time one has while filming a movie, actors have a lot of time to go with the flow. This is something Jonah Hill took advantage of when playing Seth, though we could have picked any character from the film. We picked Seth purely because his quotes are the most ridiculous.
5. Gunnery Sergeant Hartman – Full Metal Jacket
Full Metal Jacket is one of those films you need to watch. We can’t describe it here, because we don’t feel like we could properly describe the cure for eye cancer in film form. Needless to say, if you watch it and don’t find yourself quoting Sergeant Hartman, you’re dead inside.
R. Lee Ermey (Hartman), who once served as a drill instructor, felt like he was perfect for the part. So, while serving as technical adviser, he lined up 30 extras and yelled at them, in character, for 10 minutes straight. He filmed it and gave the results to Kubrick. When he saw the footage, he immediately recast the guy who was supposed to be playing Hartman at the time and gave Ermey the part instead. Ermey responded by ripping up Hartman’s part of the script, replacing it with roughly 150 pages of insults directed at the recruits. That’s something you just don’t do to a Kubrick script, since it’s usually a surefire way to make Kubrick stab you in the neck. But Ermey got away with it, because just look at the guy and be honest with yourself. You’d let him get away with it too as long as he promised not to scream your soul out of your body.
4. Randall Peltzer – Gremlins
Gremlins, for the 8 people reading this who haven’t watched it, is a film about small creatures known as Mogwai that turn into bloodthirsty Gremlins and multiply exponentially if exposed to water or fed after midnight. Seemingly to avoid explaining why the Gremlins had taken over the entire world, they’re also killed if exposed to sunlight in gremlin form, because it was an ’80s movie and stupidity didn’t need to be explained.
It’s commonly known that legendary voice actor Frank Welker provided the voice Stripe, and that he was given free reign to improvise those lines. Though impressive, there was another character in the film who was largely overlooked: Hoyt Axton, the first guy onscreen, and seller of the Bathroom Buddy, is noted as improvising most of his lines. Yes, even that opening speech where he tries to sell a product his character is supposed to have invented. Damn Hoyt, you’ve got game. Why are you not more famous?
3. Optimus Prime – Transformers
Optimus Prime is literally robot Jesus; when he died in the original cartoon series, he was brought back to life by God (the animators,) simply because people believed in him hard enough. When you have that kind of power, and are also a giant truck with flaming swords for arms, the guy who voices you is also going to carry some sway.
In the Michael Bay live-action Transformers films they got veteran voice actor Peter Cullen to be the voice of Optimus Prime. Seeing as Cullen had voiced Prime for years, his insight into the character was invaluable, meaning that if he felt that Optimus would say something that wasn’t in the script, you better believe he said it.
So how much did he improvise, exactly? However much he felt was necessary, that’s how much. Why? Cuz he’s freakin’ Optimus Prime, that’s why!
2. Dr. Peter Venkman – Ghostbusters
We don’t want to insult you as an audience by describing Ghostbusters, but the word count says that we have to fill out this opening paragraph with something, so we’re just going to say that Ghostbusters rocked our socks and we’re happier that it exists.
Dr. Venkman, played by Bill Murray, was pretty much all Bill Murray. Various sources give differing accounts of exactly how much Murray read the script, with some saying he’d occasionally glance at it, and others saying he’d ignore it completely. However, what is certain is that he improvised, well, everything. So, with that in mind, it’s probably better to assume he didn’t look at the script, since it’s more offensive to assume he looked at the script and ignored it anyway.
1. Tony Stark – Iron Man
Iron Man is a film about a man who is almost killed by terrorists, and decides the best revenge is to murder people in a suit that doubles as a war crime. The film has everything from intimate romance, to scenes where two aging men in robot suits punch each other into orbit.
According to Jeff Bridges (one of the aging men,) the film was like a “200 million dollar student project.” People would turn up on set to find no script, and key scenes were improvised on the day of shooting. Robert Downey Jr., for his part, apparently came up with most of Tony Stark’s lines himself, on the spot. Though it’s weird to think that a film with the Marvel label was so loosely put together, it’s far more important to note that this only confirms what we were all thinking: yes, Robert Downey Jr. is pretty much a real-life Tony Stark, only without the robot death suit. That we know of.