5 Iconic Pop Culture Moments Improvised at the Last Second
If everyone could create a pop culture icon, everyone would. There's no set formula for coming up with something that really takes off with the audience, otherwise our series Zombie Housewives Ad Agency Glee Club: SVU (starring Zooey Deschanel) would've never been cancelled. However, it turns out that some movies and shows that did become enduring classics were dangerously close to being terrible, and we probably wouldn't be talking about them today if they hadn't switched gears on the fly.
Star Trek: Leonard Nimoy Came Up With the Vulcan Salute on Set
One of the most lasting things to come out of Star Trek is Spock's Vulcan salute -- you know, the one where you raise your palm and separate your fingers like someone's trying to tear your hand down the middle. Half a century after the world first saw Spock do that gesture on TV, it has gone from a greeting used by the members of the Vulcan race in the show to something that nerds in general (not just Star Trek fans) can use to spot each other in the real world.
If Obama loses the next election, know that it's because he didn't put his thumb out to the side.
The salute first appeared in the 1967 episode "Amok Time," in which Spock (Leonard Nimoy) must return to his home planet to get laid or die trying. From there, the greeting just took off, presumably because the hippies mistook it for some sort of uber-peace sign.
But It Was Almost ...
A shoulder rub, basically. The script for "Amok Time" actually called for Spock to kneel in front of another Vulcan, who would then grab his shoulders. That was the "Vulcan salute." Basically, Vulcans were supposed to be an entire race of Buster Bluths from Arrested Development, constantly saying hi to their brethren through awkward surprise massages.
It's hard to imagine this version becoming so widespread and iconic, especially considering that sci-fi fans in general are about as comfortable with human contact as Vulcans themselves.
Nimoy, however, was aware of this: He pointed out on the set that a previous episode had established that Vulcans would think of this as an invasion of privacy, so he suggested replacing the shoulder rub with something else.
"You think someone's gonna remember what we said in another episode? Come on."
And as it turns out, the gesture has nothing to do with trying to appeal to the hippies and everything to do with Nimoy being Jewish. Nimoy remembered an event in his childhood when he was in a synagogue and saw Jewish priests blessing the audience by doing a gesture with both hands to represent the Hebrew letter "shin," which means "lord" or "eternal spirit":
Both of which are Leonard Nimoy's nicknames.
After demonstrating the gesture to the director, he agreed that it was better, but added the slight alteration of using only one hand. If it wasn't for Nimoy's quick thinking, comics conventions today would be even more uncomfortable than they already are.
Mickey Mouse Was the Result of a Last-Minute Name Switch
Turning a filthy rodent into the most beloved cartoon character in the world is no small feat, and yet that's exactly what Walt Disney managed to pull off with Mickey Mouse. Everything from the character's high-pitched voice to his comical appearance has been carefully calculated to make him look as friendly and marketable as possible, thus convincing kids everywhere that mice spread fun instead of disease.
Why do you think they make him wear those gloves?
But It Was Almost ...
All of that would have probably been irrelevant if they'd kept Walt Disney's original name for the little guy: "Mortimer Mouse." "Mortimer" isn't a name for a children's cartoon, it's a name for an old British guy or his pet tortoise. Calling him "Mortimer" would be one of the few ways to ensure that "Mouse" isn't the most repulsive part of the name.
Would you let a Mortimer near your children? Dressed only in a robe?
When Disney and his overlooked sidekick Ub Iwerks set out to create a new character to replace their Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series, they based it on a pet mouse that Walt had while growing up, whose name was Mortimer (we're guessing that Walt didn't otherwise have a lot of friends). Presumably Iwerks was too shy to tell Disney that the name sucked, because they were actually planning to go ahead with that atrocity. This means that the character's debut was pretty close to being called "Steamboat Mortimer," which sounds more like a Confederate prison steamer than a fun cartoon.
There's no way this could end with anything but "Mortimer" committing suicide.
Fortunately, Disney's wife pointed out what everyone else was afraid to say: No matter how large you make his pupils or how many oversized buttons you put on his pants, no kid will watch a cartoon starring a character named Mortimer. Disney asked if she could think of something better, and his wife replied, "How about Mickey?" (when in fact she could have just said "How about literally anything else?"). Two theme parks and several major motion pictures later, Disney was probably forced to admit that she might have been on to something there.
Look at this picture of the Disneys and tell us that woman isn't balls-out terrified of that doll.
There is, however, a little-known Disney character named Mortimer Mouse who is sometimes Minnie's uncle and sometimes Minnie's suitor -- exactly the kind of nastiness we'd expect from a Mortimer.
2001: A Space Odyssey's Iconic Soundtrack Was Just a Placeholder
It's impossible to think of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick's most famous and mind-blowingest work, without instantly hearing the distinctive soundtrack in your head. This movie is the only reason we associate ape men with Also Sprach Zarathustra or spaceships with waltzing.
Or even something as basic as computers with murder.
It's not just that the music fits great with the movie; it's that every image seems perfectly synchronized to that music. The audience's familiarity with those classical pieces also makes the two-and-a-half hours of cosmic insanity infinitely more watchable. Knowing how insanely detail-oriented Kubrick was, he probably had all that stuff completely figured out before shooting one second of footage, right?
"... and this whole scene will be framed by The Ride of the Valkyries, done entirely in farts."
But It Was Almost ...
Actually, the entire classical soundtrack was more or less something Kubrick included at the last minute ... throwing away a finished modern score composed and recorded specifically for this movie. The opening sequence almost sounded like this:
That original score was created by veteran composer Alex North, who had previously worked with Kubrick on his earlier film Spartacus. North's score was epic and bombastic, and would have given the movie a completely different feeling -- the audience would keep wondering when the gladiators were gonna show up and tear down that monolith. 2001 without classical music would be like Pulp Fiction without '70s songs, and with a touching John Williams theme instead.
Still, North worked so hard on the score that Kubrick personally commissioned from him that he actually came down with muscle spasms from the stress and had to be driven to the recording in an ambulance. Kubrick wasn't impressed.
"The last time I slept was Thursday. I don't remember which year."
At some point during the film's long production, MGM started worrying about the state of the movie, and Kubrick created a work reel set to classical music, just to show them how it was coming along.
Kubrick liked how it sounded and continued using the classical music as a temporary soundtrack while editing the movie himself (apparently he did everything but act in it). Meanwhile, he told North his score was fine, but that he didn't need more of it because the rest of the movie would be just breathing noises. It's unclear exactly at what point he decided to completely ditch North's soundtrack and use his own -- North himself only found out about it when he attended the film's screening (and probably looked like a huge jerk in front of his date).
Scooby-Doo's Name Was Almost "Too Much"
There's a reason why people remember Scooby-Doo as, well, "Scooby-Doo," and not "Daphne" or something: The dog is the only thing separating the show from being a cartoon about four '60s teenagers doing everything but what teenagers actually did in the '60s.
With one exception.
The original series was called Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? because that's exactly what the viewership wondered during every second of footage in which Scooby wasn't on the screen. Also, Scooby's name is way catchier than everyone else's: There are literally no words you can rhyme with "Velma."
"Thelema" kind of works, but it's a bit of a stretch.
But It Was Almost ...
Scooby was almost called "Too Much," wasn't going be the star of the show, and would play the bongos. So why did that change? Because Frank Sinatra intervened.
And for once, not by threatening to break anyone's legs.
Originally, the show was going to be about a musical group that solved mysteries between gigs, which would actually explain what four teens are doing going around the country in a cramped van painted with psychedelic artwork. The teens had a Great Dane called Too Much, who was also their drummer (this wasn't a very good band). Too Much had a cowardly personality and was best friends with Shaggy -- he was essentially Scooby-Doo already, only with a terrible name.
Nobody would say "I like that dog, Too Much" for fear of sounding like a zoophile.
However, during a plane ride back from meeting with CBS executives (who initially rejected the show), producer Fred Silverman was listening to music on his headphones when he heard Frank Sinatra improvise some gibberish at the end of his song "Strangers in the Night" -- at around the 2:22 mark, as the song fades away, Sinatra sings "dooby-dooby-doo." Silverman liked the sound of that and decided the dog should be named Scooby-Doo and should also be the star of the show. Just like that.
In order to make Scooby more of a protagonist, the writers dropped the whole music group idea and made the characters just four regular mystery-solving teens with a talking dog. CBS picked up the retooled show, and it's pretty much been on the screen in one form or another since then (including the latest live-action movie, Cabin in the Woods). If it wasn't for Frank Sinatra scatting in the studio, everything from the iconic theme song to Scooby snacks would have been different or, more likely, nonexistent.
Dr. Strangelove's Actors Thought They Were Just Practicing
Before 2001 or A Clockwork Orange, the movie that first elevated Stanley Kubrick from "great director" to "mad genius" was Dr. Strangelove (or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Just Cast Peter Sellers in Every Other Role). While Kubrick had already raised some controversy with Lolita, Dr. Strangelove was the first time he really challenged the audience by taking a serious subject like nuclear war and treating it like a comedy. Keep in mind that this was done at a time when "nuclear war" wasn't just the setting for your favorite video game, but something that could actually happen at any moment.
Audiences knew the movie could literally at any time be interrupted by a nuclear explosion.
Tone was something really important for this movie, and the main thing that helped Kubrick tread that fine line between satire and all-out comedy was the performances of great actors like George C. Scott and several Peter Sellerses. Scott plays the stereotypically American general Buck Turgidson, a raging maniac in favor of nuking the Soviet Union who speaks almost exclusively by yelling. In fact, he played that part so convincingly that they later cast him as General Patton.
But It Was Almost ...
The movie started out as a serious drama. Remember Peter Sellers' third-best performance in the film, as the sensible and almost sheepish U.S. president? It was almost all like that.
"Gentlemen, there's no polite dissenting in the War Room!"
As we mentioned a while back, Dr. Strangelove is based on a novel called Red Alert, which is exactly as serious as you'd expect a novel about Cold War politics to be. Kubrick decided pretty early in the production that he'd turn the story into a satire -- the problem was, he'd already cast some actors to play a drama. Among them was Scott, who wanted to give his character a subdued performance (despite having the word "turgid" in his name).
Kubrick realized he'd never be able to convince Scott, so he used another technique to get the iconic performance out of the actor: straight-out lies.
A merciless calculating being who always wins at chess? Dear God, he was HAL.
According to James Earl Jones, Kubrick came up with the idea of doing practice takes, asking everyone to give their craziest performance just to warm up before shooting the real thing. Scott hated the idea, but Kubrick convinced him to do the warm-ups by promising that no one would ever see them. Which was bullshit, of course: The camera was rolling the whole time. Scott was so furious when he saw the "practice" sessions in the finished movie that he swore he'd never work with Kubrick again.
But hey, at least Kubrick actually told him they were now doing a comedy ... unlike actor Slim Pickens, who was reportedly never informed that he wasn't in a drama.
"You mean to tell me that the movie where I ride an atom bomb wasn't completely serious? Huh."
When he isn't busy trying to make the world a better place, Evan V. Symon can occasionally be found on Facebook. He just might friend you.
For more popular events you thought were improvised, check out 7 Viral Videos You Didn't Know Were Staged (and How They Did It) and 7 Clearly Fake News Stories That Fooled The Mainstream Media.