The Famous Taxi Driver Line You Probably Didn't Know Was Improvised

There is a scene in Martin Scorsese's ultra-violent "Taxi Driver" that has been permanently stamped in our cinematic memories. It opens with the disturbed Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) twirling his gun in front of a mirror. He puts on an army jacket over his bare chest and tight jeans, folds his arms, and turns from side to side to see if his holster is easily concealed. In a flash, he draws his gun from his sleeve, threatening his reflection in an imagined confrontation. Looking at himself, he sees the heroic vigilante he dreams of being; he sees "a man who would not take it anymore," someone who will stand up for a degrading society by assassinating Senator Palantine. Travis continues to provoke his mirrored assailant, asking him to "make a move," then utters what would go on to become one of the most famous movie lines of all time

You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? Then who the hell else are you talkin' to? You talkin' to me? Well I'm the only one here. Who the f**k do you think you're talking to?"

In an interview with Today for the 40th anniversary of the film, Scorsese and De Niro discussed filming the memorable scene during the final week of shooting. Paul Schrader's script had no written dialogue, only indicating that Bickle "looks in the mirror and plays like a cowboy, pulls out his gun, talks to himself." With the rest of the crew outside so that the director and actor could concentrate on the challenging sequence, Scorsese asked De Niro if he could say something to himself in the mirror. "He kept saying, 'You talkin' to me?' He just kept repeating it, kept repeating it ... and the [assistant director] was banging on the door saying, 'Come on, we gotta get out of here.' And I said, 'No, this is good, this is good. Give me another minute.'" 

Scorsese equates De Niro's inspired improvisation to a solo jazz riff; it has a chaotic quality that perfectly matches Travis' descent into paranoia. De Niro never imagined his ad lib would resonate decades later. Was there magic in the air on set that day or was the line subconsciously influenced by someone else?  

Inspiration From The Boss

In 2019, Martin Scorsese and Bruce Springsteen participated in a live discussion on "Springsteen on Broadway." One of their topics of conversation was the long-swirling rumor that Springsteen had impacted Robert De Niro's "You talkin' to me?" quote. "I tried reaching Bob now, but of course he's about to land somewhere," Scorsese told Springsteen. While the rock and roll legend believes it is an urban myth, Scorsese replied, "No, I think it might be [true]! You never know. Because we never knew where that came from." One thing was for sure, the line did not come from Paul Schrader, who joked in Film Comment, "To me, it's the best thing in the movie. And I didn't write it."

On August 13, 1975, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band began a 10-show stand at New York's Bottom Line club. De Niro attended one of the shows in the midst of "Taxi Driver" shooting. During Springsteen's "Quarter to Three" repartee with the audience, he would look all around him and cooly ask the crowd screaming his name, "Are you talkin' to me? Is that who you're talking to?" E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons stated in his memoir "Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales" that while coaching De Niro for his role in Scorsese's "New York, New York," the famous actor confirmed that the line originated from Springsteen's concert. 

Still, others have theorized that De Niro's off-the-cuff dialogue came from the 1953 western "Shane," which would align with Schrader's comparison of Bickle to a cowboy. In "Shane," the following exchange is remarkably similar to Bickle's rant: 

Shane: You speakin' to me? Chris Calloway: I don't see nobody else standin' there.

Whether someone inspired De Niro or the line came from his own mind, it became a legendary moment in film history that would be homaged in countless films.

The Line's Legacy

In 2005, De Niro's improvised dialogue was ranked number 10 on the American Film Institute's "AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes." It has become such an ubiquitous moment in pop culture that whenever a character starts talking to his reflection or picks up a gun (real or imagined), you can expect them to start quoting "Taxi Driver." 

In "Back to the Future Part III," Marty dresses as a cowboy and quotes the scene to his reflection while wearing a gun belt. Disney's "The Lion King" throws in a reference for the parents watching when Pumba responds to one of the hyenas calling him a pig. Vincent Cassel's gangster character in the hard-hitting drama "La Haine" admires Bickle's commitment to violent vengeance while he reenacts the scene in his bathroom mirror. 

"The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" is a dismal example of the quote being used in another film and one of the lowest points in Robert De Niro's post-1990s career. He lampoons himself in an over-the-top performance as the Fearless Leader when he winkingly asks, "Are you talkin' to me?" This is just about the only time De Niro willingly repeated the line, as he refuses to do so during interviews. But this soulless parody can't take away from De Niro's stroke of genius; his improvised monologue in "Taxi Driver" perfectly communicates the depths of Bickle's insanity.