30 Iconic Movie Scenes That Were Totally Unplanned

     January 5, 2019

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Would it surprise you to know that some of the most iconic scenes in movie history were never in the script? Here are 30 unplanned, magic accidents that lead to critically acclaimed moments.

Apocalypse Now

According to the script for Apocalypse Now, Colonel Kurtz was a lean, mean fighting machine, but Marlon Brando arrived on set weighing more than 300 pounds. “I can’t get a super 4-X Green Beret combat [costume],” director Francis Ford Coppola moaned.

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Image via United Artists

To hide the actor’s girth, Coppola and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro dressed Brando in black pajamas and shot the movie scenes mostly in shadow, which wound up adding to Kurtz’s aura of mystery and madness.   

E.T.

Nowadays product placement is all the rage. But not every company gets excited about seeing their goods in movie scenes. According to the screenplay for E.T., Elliott was supposed to woo the tiny alien into his home using M&Ms—not Reese’s Pieces. But Mars, the maker of M&Ms, balked at the opportunity. 

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Image via Universal Pictures

When Hershey agreed to let its candy be used, no one at the company had yet seen the movie in its entirety. The subsequent promotional tie-in campaign was the biggest in Hershey’s history, and sales of the sweet stuff tripled in the first two weeks of the film’s release.

Taxi Driver

Screenwriter Paul Schrader envisioned taxi driver Travis Bickle as an unstable vigilante who descends into madness. Much of Taxi Driver’s dialogue was intentionally vague, giving the actor room to improvise. In fact, according to the script, at one point Travis simply “speaks to himself in the mirror” in one of the classic’s most famous movie scenes.

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Image via Columbia Pictures

In preparing for the role, Robert DeNiro debated Travis’s actions and articulations with director Martin Scorsese for hours. Scorsese set up the mirror scene such that DeNiro spoke into the camera. He posed and preened, twirled his gun and muttered, “You talkin’ to me?” with increasing urgency. The movie scene became the most-quotable moment in the film.

The Shining 

Living in England and petrified of flying, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick didn’t get to examine the hotel in Oregon where The Shining’s exteriors were filmed. Nor was he familiar with Ed McMahon’s famous catchphrase from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson: “Here’s Johnny!”

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Image via Warner Bros.

So in the movie scene where Jack Nicholson shouted it while squeezing through a broken door and attempting to kill his wife (played by Shelley Duvall), Kubrick nearly axed it out completely. All told, the scary movie scenes took three days to be filmed, with Nicholson chopping down around 60 doors and Duvall going through over 125 takes. The intensity took its toll: Duvall lost clumps of hair from stress. 

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Months into a shoot in Tunisia, Harrison Ford had had enough: he just wanted some solid bathroom time to deal with a terrible bout of dysentery. Yet the script for Raiders of the Lost Ark called for an elaborate movie scene fight between the intrepid Indiana Jones and a sword-wielding assassin, which would require multiple days of shooting. 

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Image via Paramount

Ford’s stomach had other plans, so the actor and director Steven Spielberg devised a different ending. A truly fatigued Jones watched his would-be killer deftly twirl a silver blade, then pulled out his gun and shot him in the gut. End scene.  

Annie Hall

The funniest movie scenes in a film whose screenplay is among the funniest of all time weren’t written that way. Pressured to partake by his girlfriend, Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), the neurotic Alvy (Woody Allen) picks up a box of cocaine to inspect. Then he sneezes, turning the white powder into a ginormous cloud.  

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Image via United Artists

No one knows exactly what happened, except for the fact that the sneeze was sincere, caused by a reaction to the fake powder. Search for “the sneeze scene from Annie Hall” on YouTube, and you’ll get videos with titles like “Never do drugs with Woody Allen!” Good advice. 

Midnight Cowboy

As accidental movie scenes go, this one is the stuff of legend. Lacking enough money to shut down the street, the crew of Midnight Cowboy shot around NYC traffic, resulting in one particularly close call. As the two hustlers, played by Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, crossed the street, deep in conversation about the types of women who pay for sex, a taxi zoomed into the crosswalk to beat the light.

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Image via United Artists

Slamming his hand down on the cab’s hood, his cigarette falling out of his mouth, Hoffman as the consumptive con man Ratso Rizzo shouted, “Hey! I’m walkin’ here!” It’s a line that’s been uttered by a million New Yorkers since.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Gene Wilder accepted the part of the titular character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory on one condition: that he got to determine his on-screen entrance. And what an entrance it was. Leaving his candy factory, he limped, leaning heavily on a cane and furrowing his face in concentration, toward an eager group of kids and caregivers. The crowd went silent in sympathy.

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Image via Paramount Pictures

As the cane got stuck, Wilder fell to the ground, only to execute an astonishing summersault. Surprise and cheers ensued. Wilder explained his choice in the iconic movie scenes as ensuring that “from that time on, no one [would] know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”

The Godfather

Paramount head Robert Evans quipped, “The war over casting the family Corleone was more volatile than the war the Corleone family fought onscreen.” The studio forced Marlon Brando to work for free, due to his difficult reputation. The Godfather’s opening scene, in which Brando strokes a cat and discourses on friendship, cemented the role as his.

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Image via Paramount Pictures

That gray-and-white tabby, though, belonged to nobody. Director Francis Ford Coppola found the feline roaming the set and gave it to Brando to see what would happen. The ploy worked so well the crew to worry that subtitles might have to be inserted over the purring. Instead, it became one of cinema’s most memorable opening movie scenes.

Jaws

So many things went wrong during the filming of Jaws that some crew members referred to the movie as “Flaws.” Despite the accidents and mishaps, Steven Spielberg’s movie became the first summer blockbuster. In both the novel and the original screenplay, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is killed when his shark cage proves ineffective against the titular jaws.

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Image via Universal Pictures

To make up for the malfunctioning mechanical sharks used in the main shoot, a second crew filmed real sharks in Australia, including one attacking an empty cage. Spielberg liked the footage so much he incorporated it into movie scenes, thereby saving Hooper’s life.  

Animal House

Although Animal House was his first movie, John Belushi was already a star improviser, having honed his skills through several seasons of Saturday Night Live. Writers Chris MillerHarold Ramis, and Douglas Kenney based the script on their own fraternity experiences, yet allowed Belushi a lot of autonomy to do what he did best while the cameras rolled. 

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Image via Universal Pictures

The famed cafeteria movie scene was improvised, as Belushi’s “Bluto” shoveled plate after plate to the horrified looks of his tablemates. Upon being called a pig, he smashed his full cheeks together, spewing cream onto a bunch of clean-cut pledges. “I’m a zit,” he cried. “Get it?” 

Goodfellas

Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi wrote a dozen-odd draft of Goodfellas, but much of the movie was the result of the brainstorming Scorsese encouraged on set. Case in point: Tommy DeVito’s violent reaction to an innocuous compliment. The banter seemed harmless enough, a bunch of guys drinking and goofing around. Hill (Ray Liotta) praised DeVito (Joe Pesci) for telling a story.

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Image via Warner Bros.

But DeVito quickly went off the rails: “Funny how? Funny like I’m a clown, like I amuse you?” Pesci based the incident on an experience he had while working as a waiter when a “connected” guy didn’t appreciate Pesci’s comments about his sense of humor.

Ghostbusters

Dan Aykroyd originally imagined a movie about ghost-busting time travelers that would star his SNL colleagues John Belushi and Eddie Murphy. However, Ghostbusters turned out much differently. The accidental death of Belushi led to Bill Murray being cast as the sardonic Peter Venkman, which led to a slew of improvised lines. 

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Image via Columbia Pictures

During the shoot of the library scene, a crew member knocked over a bookcase by accident, causing Murray to deadpan “This happen to you before?” Aykroyd as Ray Stantz slowly shook his head. “Oh, first time?” Aykroyd slowly nodded. Director Ivan Reitman enjoyed the exchange so much, he kept the scene in the movie.

The Goonies

In an interview commemorating the 30th anniversary of The Goonies, director Richard Donner said he loved working with the film’s child actors because of their “pure, wonderful, unprogrammed minds.” As challenging as it sometimes was to get the kids to pay attention to their marks, they also brought incredible energy, and incredible ideas, including the Truffle Shuffle.

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Image via Warner Bros.

In an early scene, the gang forced Chunk (Jeff Cohen) to dance before they let him into the house. He pulled up his shirt, grimaced, and shook his belly, an entirely spur-of-the-moment series of movements that perfectly captured kids being kids.

The Breakfast Club

The Breakfast Club was shot in sequence, so the emerging bond we see on screen is, to some extent, the result of the developing bonds between the actors off-screen. Writer/director John Hughes urged the actors to augment the lines in the script. This went double for the library scene when each character explains how he/she landed in detention that day.

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Image via Universal Pictures

Another notable invention: John Bender (Judd Nelson) told himself a joke about a naked blonde with a poodle and a salami as he crawled through the air ducts, only to crash through the ceiling before he reaches the punchline. Nelson completely invented the set-up. 

Full Metal Jacket

R. Lee Ermey was nominated for a Golden Globe for his portrayal of a drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket. After Ermey retired from the Marine Corps, he sought to draw on his military experience as a technical director on movies. He convinced Stanley Kubrick to hire him by submitting a homemade audition, in which he shouted insults as oranges and tennis balls came flying at his head.

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Image via Warner Bros.


Ermey improvised much of his dialogue during a nearly-six-minute movie scene in which he spews verbal venom at Marine recruits. Kubrick estimated that Ermey generated some “150 pages of insults” in preparation, among them “What is your major malfunction?” 

The 40-Year-Old-Virgin

Although acting means pretending, some actors choose to film movie scenes live in order to heighten the authenticity. So it was with Steve Carell, who decided to get his chest waxed live on camera as part of The 40-Year-Old Virgin. He had no idea what he was in for as he laid down on the table and the aesthetician ripped off a chunk of hair.

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Image via Universal Pictures

A beat of silence followed by a tiny cry that rapidly escalated into a howl. Carrell then let out a legit torrent of obscenities, ranging from “Cómo se llama?” to “Kelly Clarkson!” to X-rated insults involving a complicated interplay of anatomy and bodily functions.

Wayne’s World

A description of the most famous scene in Wayne’s World sounds like a setup for a joke: five head-bangers drive around in a 1976 AMC Pacer, singing along to . . . Producer Lorne Michaels wanted a Guns N’ Roses tune, but actor and screenwriter Mike Myers argued for “Bohemian Rhapsody.” In fact, he threatened to leave the set unless he got his way.

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Image via Paramount Pictures

In the resulting scene, the actors banged so hard that Myers said he and Dana Carvey injured their necks. Small price for greatness. One of the most iconic movie scenes in recent comedy history helped return the song to popularity, and nowadays it’s a staple of sports arenas and radio stations alike.  

The Dark Knight

With the blessing of screenwriter/director Christopher NolanHeath Ledger developed the character of the Joker for The Dark Knight by isolating himself in a hotel room for six weeks. What emerged was a psychopathic prankster, someone who menaces as much with dark humor as with violence.

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Image via Warner Bros. Pictures

In one scene, the Joker exited Gotham Hospital, leaving a raft of explosions in his wake. Outside, he turned, clicking the detonator to cause one final catastrophe, only to have it malfunction. Ledger frowned, then started banging on the device. One of the bangs did the trick; the resulting explosion caused Ledger to jump in surprise.

Reservoir Dogs

When it comes to knives and ears, you’d think filmmakers and actors alike would want the action as carefully composed as possible. Not so in Reservoir Dogs’ infamous torture scene. The script offered the briefest of guidance: “Mr. Blonde maniacally dances around.”

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Image via Miramax Films

Director Quentin Tarantino believed actor Michael Madsen could concoct what the movie scene required on the spot. Madsen wasn’t so sure but he trusted the director’s instinct. Rather than rehearse, or even listen to “Stuck in the Middle with You” ahead of time, Madsen started shuffling, gyrating, and lip-syncing as soon as Tarantino called “action.” After three takes, Tarantino called “cut.” 

Django Unchained

To emphasize a point about his human property in a scene from Django Unchained, slave owner Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) smeared his bloody hand across the face of Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), his clearly horrified slave. The horror was authentic, as DiCaprio had accidentally cut his hand while smashing a glass—a cut so deep he later required stitches. 

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Image via The Weinstein Company

He stayed in character, however, gesturing with his profusely bleeding hand, and continued his racist rant, much to the shock and revulsion of his dinner guests, among them Django (Jamie Foxx) and Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz). After the take, DiCaprio’s fellow actors gave him a standing ovation. 

The Usual Suspects

After a truck gets hijacked, five known criminals are pulled into a New York City police station for questioning. Standing in the lineup, each is asked to recite the same line. But they break down in a case of the giggles.

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Image via Gramercy Pictures

The movie’s scene was filmed after lunch, and director Bryan Singer wanted the actors, including Gabriel Byrne del Toro, to stick to the script. Instead, del Toro began farting, causing everyone to laugh. Though unscripted, the laughs heighten the absurdity of the situation: rounding up the criminals sets off the chain reaction that leads to the violence that begins the movie and the stunning twist that concludes it.

Fight Club

While much of Fight Club is about hitting someone as hard as you can, that didn’t necessarily mean the actors looked forward to getting pummeled. To prepare for the movie’s violence, both Edward Norton and Brad Pitt took grappling, boxing, and taekwondo lessons as well as studied mixed martial arts fights.

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Image via 20th Century Fox

Nevertheless, Pitt as Tyler Durden wasn’t exactly ready to get cuffed in the ear. The scene was scripted for Norton’s Narrator to punch Durden’s shoulder. At the last second, director David Fincher advised Norton to aim for Pitt’s ear. Pitt’s response–“You hit me in the ear???!!!!”–is an absolutely genuine mixture of the actor’s anger and disbelief.

Warriors

No one would laud The Warriors for its verisimilitude or insights into urban life, yet the movie remains an indelible part of the culture—thanks in part to an ad-libbed scene by actor David Patrick Kelly, making his film debut as Luther, the ruthless leader of the Rogues.

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Image via Paramount Pictures

The script required Luther to goad what’s left of the Warriors into a fight. But the words weren’t jelling. So Kelly grabbed a few beer bottles, clicking them together in an ominous rhythm for several scary seconds. Then, recalling something a childhood neighbor used to say, he drawled a new line: “Warriors? Come out to play-ay.”   

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

When someone says “I love you,” a common reply is “I love you too.” That’s how Han Solo might have responded to Princess Leia’s expression of her feelings as he prepared to be enclosed in carbonite. But, during the filming of The Empire Strikes Back, nothing seemed quite right for the rakish Solo.

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Image via 20th Century Fox

Director Irvin Kershner began brainstorming alternatives with Harrison Ford. “Just do whatever comes to mind,” Kershner urged. The result is cinematic history, widely considered to be one of the most iconic lines in the Star Wars franchise. Carrie Fisher gave her line, to which Ford responded, “I know.”

Pretty Woman

Plenty of Pretty Woman grew out of pranks and gags, including the movie’s scene in which corporate tycoon Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) offered prostitute Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) a sparkling bauble to wear to the opera. As she reached into the open jewelry box, Gere snapped it shut—and she burst out laughing.

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Image via Buena Vista Pictures

According to director Garry Marshall, the young Roberts had been out late the night before, so she was a little sluggish on set. He encouraged Gere to mess with the actress as a joke, but no one expected such an unaffected, heart-warming response. Marshall smartly kept it in the movie.

Casino Royale

It’s the movie scene that launched a thousand memes (and fantasies). A shirtless Daniel Craig emerged from the water, droplets glistening off a perfect set of pecs and rolling into a skintight bathing suit, an echo of Ursula Andress on the beach in Dr. No, the first Bond movie.

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Image via Sony Pictures Releasing

The whole, hot scene was an accident. In his initial foray as 007, Craig was meant to swim to shore. But he hit a sandbar, which forced him upright. Craig said later that his first thought was “‘Oh f*ck’…I had no idea I would be haunted by it for the rest of my life.”

Dumb and Dumber

In a 2013 AMA on Reddit, director and co-writer Peter Farrelly claimed that around 15 percent of Dumb and Dumber was improvised. Riding down the highway with his best friend Harry and hitchhiker henchman Mental Mentalino, Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) posed a question no one should ever say “yes” to: “Hey, wanna hear the most annoying sound in the world?”

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Image via New Line Cinema

On screen, his high-pitched screech caused Mentalino to scream for him to stop. Off-screen, the movie scene launched a million imitators. If you’re curious, a 2012 scientific study found the world’s most annoying sound to be a knife on a bottle.

Aladdin

Robin Williams ad-libbed most of his role as the Genie in Aladdin, ultimately recording approximately 16 hours of jokes and riffs for various movies scene dialogue. To capture Williams’ manic intensity, Ron Clements and John Musker—the producers, directors, and co-screenwriters—allowed the comedian free rein in the studio.

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Image via Buena Vista Pictures

Head animator Eric Goldberg attended many of Williams’ sessions so he could better direct his team in capturing Williams’ mannerisms. After hearing Williams utter the phrase “Booo-wooop,” a signal that someone was lying, Goldberg decided to alter the visuals such that Genie’s head would transform into that of Pinocchio, another beloved Disney character.

Black Panther

Heavy is the head that wears the crown, or, as in the case of M’Baku in Black Panther, wields a Wakandan scepter of power. Unimpressed with the pleas of CIA operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) for help dealing with Killmonger and urging the Jabari to avenge the defeat of T’Challa, M’Baku and his Jabari tribesmen started barking—a fierce, deep-throated sound that drowned out everything else and stunned the supplicants into silence.  

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Image via Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Winston Duke, who played M’Baku with a combination of dominance and drollery, later admitted to devising the barking. “You cannot talk,” M’Baku thundered. “One more word and I will feed you to my children.”  

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