5 Classic Pop Culture Moments (Actors Made Up on the Fly)
We have nothing against writers (much of this very website is written by them), but we can't pretend that every iconic TV and movie character or moment is carefully crafted by expert scribes hunched over a desk. Often the writer comes up with only a vague idea (or a specific yet terrible one) and the actor has to think up something better on the spot. In fact, some of the most iconic scenes of all time come about this way ...
The Vulcan Nerve Pinch Was Originally a Punch in the Face
Star Trek's Vulcan nerve pinch (called the Vulcan neck pinch by people who like it when Trekkie heads explode) is the type of thing that sci-fi is all about: It looks awesome, it fits the Spock character perfectly, and even a child could learn how to do it.
Any stealthy, oddly tall child.
So, of course it wasn't intended to exist at all. Gene Roddenberry's vision of how Spock should deal with his enemies was far simpler: He'd punch them square in the jaw.
That's right, just a big ol' sock to the teeth. In an episode titled "The Enemy Within," an evil Captain Kirk terrorizes the Enterprise, and Spock is tasked with subduing him. He was supposed to do this by throwing a haymaker and knocking Kirk straight out. Despite being given a golden opportunity to punch William Shatner right in his enormous head, Spock declined, saying it was out of character. And here is where, in fact, Leonard Nimoy proved that he understood the character of Spock better than the people who wrote for him. Of course Vulcans would have a more restrained, logical way to subdue a man rather than giving him a flailing knuckle sandwich.
Plus, fight scenes need such complex choreography.
Instead, Nimoy suggested that Vulcans should have the power to shoot energy from their fingertips, and that placing said fingers on a prominent nerve would cause the enemy to receive a moderate shock and be knocked harmlessly unconscious. OK, it's not very scientific (although lightning fingers would certainly make masturbation more interesting), but it adheres to the central rule of sci-fi: Nobody will care as long as it's awesome.
The director was less than enthused, but Shatner loved the idea, presumably because he suddenly didn't have to risk getting cold-cocked into next week. They played out the scene for the director, who came around and decided he loved it. It immediately became one of the show's trademarks, right behind male aliens with walnuts for foreheads and female aliens who automatically want to have sex with humans, no matter what planet they're from.
Blade Runner's "Tears in Rain" Speech Was Originally Pure Gibberish
Originally a flop after its 1982 release, Blade Runner's reputation as a dystopian masterpiece has improved exponentially, and Rutger Hauer's "tears in rain" scene is one of the reasons why. Like many great speeches, it's short and to the point:
"I've ... seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die."
It's one of the most poignant, emotional, and famous death-related soliloquies in movie history, delivered by Roy Batty, a supposedly soulless robot who understood the frailty of life and the importance of making an impact on history while you still can better than any of the human characters ever could. But if the original script was followed, nobody would've given a shit, and "Dust in the Wind" would still be the undisputed champion of poetically pointing out that we're all gonna die.
'N Sync's "Bye Bye Bye" would place a distant second.
Why? Because the speech, as originally scripted, sucked. It read less like a heartbreaking treatise on life and death and more like a lost verse from Robo Johnny Cash's "I've Been Everywhere."
"I've known adventures, seen places you people will never see, I've been Offworld and back ... frontiers! I've stood on the back deck of a blinker bound for the Plutition Camps with sweat in my eyes watching the stars fight on the shoulder of Orion. I've felt wind in my hair, riding test boats off the black galaxies, and seen an attack fleet burn like a match and disappear. I've seen it, felt it!"
Hauer decided the speech needed some, you know, actual emotion behind it, so he went about editing it himself. He cut out virtually all of the travel guide that he was given, added in the stuff about tears and death, and inserted a dove for further symbolism.
"I've been pooped on in places you people wouldn't believe."
He read the whole thing out loud to director Ridley Scott, who loved it. The result was some of the most badass dying words in recorded history and one of the most artful death scenes of all time. As a result, Hauer would of course go on to play the lead in Hobo With a Shotgun.
Fonzie Was Originally a Generic, Silent Bully
At this point, Fonzie is more well-known and recognizable than the show he starred in -- and in fact many people who know about Fonzie today have never seen an actual episode of Happy Days at all. The quintessential '50s cool dude resonated with audiences like few other characters did; without him, Happy Days would almost certainly be one more short-lived footnote in sitcom history. And that almost happened, because the Fonz was originally slated to be nothing at all.
They wanted an unmanned motorcycle, but it kept falling over.
Hell, he didn't even get his name in the original opening -- it was one of those bit parts that only got billing in the closing credits, right around the time most viewers had already switched to one of the other two channels they had at the time. That's because the original character, if you can call it that, was just a generic street tough, a near-mute motorcycle rider whom the other kids feared. He likely would've faded into oblivion, along with the rest of the show, had Henry Winkler not raised a few objections prior to filming the pilot. Namely, that he hated the character and didn't want to portray him as written. The Fonz was a bully, carried around cigarettes, and chewed gum; Winkler said nay to all three.
"'I came here to kick ass and chew ...'? Nope. Not sayin' it. Pass the milk."
Surprisingly, instead of just canning his prima donna ass, the producers agreed to let Winkler play the Fonz his way. Then, one final bit of improv cemented the character in TV history: In one scene, Winkler was supposed to comb his hair in the bathroom mirror, like all the kids did back then. Instead, he sauntered up to the mirror, started to comb, and immediately stopped. He stared into the mirror, arms outstretched, and realized his hair was already perfect, and he was already the coolest guy in the world. "AYYY!"
This cocky persona took off immediately and catapulted the Fonz and Happy Days to the top of the ratings. Add in a few "AYYYYYYYY"s and "WHOOOOOOOA"s (also created by Winkler, who used the phrases a lot while horseback riding), accompanied by a thumbs-up, and the show had itself a bona fide icon. One that wouldn't have existed if Winkler had actually followed the script.
Tarzan's Original Battle Yell Sounded Pathetic
Like Fonzie, Tarzan exists in pop culture almost completely detached from the medium where he appeared. You'll be hard-pressed to find anyone these days who has seen an actual Tarzan movie, even the Brendan Fraser one, but everybody still knows two things about the character: He swings from vines, and he does that elaborate yell.
The yell is something that everybody recognizes, and that everybody has tried to do at least once, almost certainly to disastrous effect.
You just tried it, didn't you? Of course you did.
The yell itself was made famous by actor Johnny Weissmuller, who portrayed Tarzan for 16 years. It's a good thing he came along, because everyone before him had nearly run the yell into the ground through sheer awfulness. As you hopefully know, Tarzan first appeared in a book series, and his yell was described as "the victory cry of the bull ape" (whatever the fuck that is). In 1918, Elmo Lincoln became the first actor to vocalize said cry, albeit in a silent film. Years later, he appeared on TV to show us what he sounded like. He really shouldn't have.
What the shit was that? Who greenlit the mighty Tarzan yowling like a giant baby throwing a temper tantrum? It would somehow get worse going forward, as 1929's Tarzan the Tiger starred Frank Merrill as the ape man, giving us his version of the yell:
So we're no longer crying like a baby who wants his ba-ba, but now we've become a clumsy oaf who just had his foot crushed by a brick. That's ... progress? OK, how about the 1932 radio serial, with James Pierce as Tarzan? Anything better?
Not really, no. Unless you consider groaning about a horrible stomachache, followed by some high-pitched wailing straight out of Deliverance, to be an improvement. So when Weissmuller showed up to film 1932's Tarzan the Ape Man, he could have completely mailed a yell in, and it would still have been an improvement. Instead, he drew from his yodeling past, took a deep breath, and gave us this:
And there you have it. Because one actor finally realized that Tarzan shouldn't sound like he was in constant pain, the character's popularity exploded, Weissmuller earned himself a lucrative (albeit woefully typecast) career, and his yell immediately became the gold standard. Even Disney knew better than to screw with the yell, and they screw with everything.
Full Metal Jacket's Drill Instructor Was Originally the World's Worst
Full Metal Jacket is technically a film about Vietnam, although it's mainly famous for its first half, perhaps the most harrowing depiction of boot camp ever filmed. This series of scenes featuring bald recruits scrubbing toilets while drill instructor Hartman screams at them was a huge success. Not only that, but it propelled R. Lee Ermey, the guy behind the yelling, to a legitimate film career where he ... yelled at people more. Hey, if you're good at something, you're good at something.
"THANK YOU FOR ASSISTING WITH MY VOICE COACHING, MAGGOT!"
Ermey was actually a former Marine drill instructor, which helped with his character's authenticity. This was needed, because Hartman was originally an utter disaster. According to Ermey, Hartman had "no rhyme or reason" behind what he was doing, and was a sadist who made a hobby out of torturing recruits. In Ermey's mind, Hartman shouldn't treat recruits like worthless fucks because he gets off on it. He should treat them like worthless fucks because he cares.
Unfortunately, a guy named Tim Colceri already had the role, and Ermey was merely a technical advisor. He found a solution, though, utilizing his two favorite weapons: volume and profanity. Ermey lined up a bunch of extras and recorded himself spewing insult after vile insult at them, not missing a beat or repeating himself once, for over 15 minutes. He then played the tape for Kubrick, who immediately demoted Colceri to Helicopter Door-Gunner Guy #1, hiring Ermey on the spot.
"Texas? Only two things come from Texas -- steers and also a goodly portion of America's milk supply. And you ... um, actually, I forgot my point."
But there was still the matter of the script being dogshit. So Ermey, who was either unaware of Kubrick's hatred of improv or simply uninterested in giving a shit, ripped up at least half of Hartman's dialogue, replacing it with selections from 150 pages of insults and threats that he had written himself (OK, he might be a bit crazy). This dialogue was not only funnier and more biting than before, but also more in tune with how Ermey felt the character should act.
Clearly, the former military man had a point. He wrote some of the best lines in a film that received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Oh, and he earned himself a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor as well. The moral: If a Marine wants to play a Marine in a movie about the Marines, you let him play the Marine. It really is better than faking it.
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Extra Credit: Your favorite pop culture moments involved way less forethought than you suspected. Even The X-Files was pretty much improvised from the get-go. And the infamous Vulcan salute? Also made up on the fly. And did you know the Joker almost ended up cut from Batman altogether? It's true!