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'I'm Walkin' Here!:' Dustin Hoffman's 'Midnight Cowboy' Ad-Lib

Entertainment | March 18, 2019

Source: United Artists

It's an involuntary reaction for many of us -- when a car pulls into the crosswalk we're about to use, we just blurt out "I'm walkin' here!" And thus Midnight Cowboy's Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) lives on.

Film was changing at the tail end of the 1960s. Straight forward stories about good-guy heroes and dastardly villains were falling out of fashion and being replaced by films about rebels and people on the wrong side of the law. Many moviegoers felt like they knew the flawed people on the screen, perhaps for the first time. 1969’s Midnight Cowboy was the first in a long line of grimy movies, and it’s the only film with an X rating to win an Academy Award for best picture.

At the time Midnight Cowboy was a lightning rod for controversy despite making $40 million on a $3 million budget, but as time rolled on the thing that everyone remembers from the movie is Dustin Hoffman’s immortal line.

Midnight Cowboy follows Joe Buck, a wide-eyed male prostitute played by John Voight as he attempts to navigate the mean streets of New York City. He gets a little help from a street hustler named “Ratso” Rizzo played by Dustin Hoffman. In the most famous scene in the film Voight and Hoffman walk across the street when they’re almost hit by a cab, Hoffman slams his hands on the front of the car and shouts, “Hey! I'm walkin' here!” From that moment the line was cemented in film history. 

Dustin Hoffman Improvised The Line

Source: United Artists

The “I’m walkin’ here scene” from Midnight Cowboy feels so organic and alive that when Hoffman shouts at the cabbie it’s as if it’s immaculately staged. However, according to Hoffman, he made up the line on the spot because he and Voight were truly almost run down by a cab. Hoffman explained:

It was a low-budget movie. Nobody wanted to make this movie, Midnight Cowboy. People walked out during previews; it was considered filthy in 1969. Very low budget. Consequently, on Sixth Avenue, there was no money to stack it with extras. So it’s what they call a stolen shot. We have radio mikes on, the van is across the street, we rehearse it by ourselves. You know, the director [John Schlesinger], me and [Jon] Voight. And we would have to do this dialogue walking. And the hidden camera across the street would go with us, but we couldn’t stop the signal, so we had to reach the dialogue at a certain point so we wouldn’t have to stop. It would have to be turning green when we hit it. So we rehearsed it ourselves and we finally got — oh, so we’ll start this far back, then we’ll do this pace and then we’ll get there when it just hits green — perfect — and we can just continue. And we do it, and the first take a cab jumps the light … I wound up saying, ‘I’m walkin’ here!’ But what was going through my head is: ‘Hey, we’re makin’ a movie here! And you just f**ked this shot up.’ But somehow something told me you’d better keep it within the character.

Director John Schlesinger Disagrees With Dustin Hoffman Over The Improvised Aspects Of The Line

Source: pinterest

In spite of Hoffman’s well told and fervent exploit about almost dying for the cinema, director John Schlesinger (The Falcon and the Snowman, Marathon Man) claims that Dustin Hoffman’s line wasn’t actually as off-the-dome as the actor claims. Schlesinger even indicates at the possibility that the line was in the script. In a wide-ranging interview Schlesinger said:

I don't know that that was improvised. I think we got an extra inside a cab and did it. I can't swear to the fact that it was in the script or not, but I don't think that was improvised. 

Hoffman Actually Said The Line A Few Times

Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in 'Midnight Cowboy.' Source: IMDB

Whether it was was improvised or not is sort of immaterial -- because the first take wasn't used anyway. Hoffman admitted that following the near-death experience, director John Schlesinger ruined the first take of the famous scene, so Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight had to repeat everything that happened to make sure they got a clean take. Hoffman said that following his first utterance of “I’m walkin’ here”:

Schlesinger jumps out of the van and goes, ‘What happened? What happened? What happened?’ We told him, he says, we have to do it again just like that.

Hoffman Made Sure He Stayed In Character As The Scene Fell Apart

Source: United Artists

The reason this line continues to resonate with audiences is because Hoffman found himself in a tense, real-life situation and reacted to it in character, melding the world of fiction with reality. During a Q&A in Tribeca Hoffman said that he was so in the zone that he knew that the only way to respond to a near-death experience was to do it in character. He told his audience:

We finally get it at the — whatever it is — 50th take, and we’re so happy, we can feel it, at this point in the dialogue, Jon and I. We’re at the corner, and it turns green, and we’re able to keep walking, and a f**king cab has hit us. The truth is, this is the way the brain works: What was in my head was, ‘We’re makin’ a movie here!’ And then just as I’m about to say that, I realize, ‘Oh, you can’t do that,’ the brain changes it to, ‘I’m walkin’ here!’ What was really being said, for me, was, ‘We’re shooting here!’

“I’m Walkin’ Here” Walks On

Source: United Artists

There’s a good chance that even if you haven’t seen Midnight Cowboy that you’ve heard or even said Dustin Hoffman’s famous quote. On top of that, there’s a distinct possibility that you heard the line in a movie or a TV show and simply believed that it originated wherever you initially heard it.

The immortal line has been reused in movies like Forrest Gump, Mo’ Better Blues, Shanghai Knights, Back to the Future Part II, Shrek the Third, Rock of Ages, Apocalypto, and TV shows like Rick and Morty and Family Guy. So yeah, you’ve heard the line somewhere. 

Tags: Dustin Hoffman | Famous Movie Scenes | Famous Quotes From The 1960s | Jon Voight | Midnight Cowboy

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.