The Improvised Line In The Shining That Became An Instant Classic

The mind of Stephen King is an interesting place. America's preeminent horror writer has seen at least fifty film adaptations based on his work. His movies have given us some very memorable lines. From "Sometimes dead is better" in "Pet Sematary" to "Get busy living or get busy dying" from "The Shawshank Redemption," there's no shortage of memorable quotes from King's film library.

However, one of the most famous one-liners from all of Stephen King's adaptations never appeared in one of his books, or even a movie script. Instead, it was ad-libbed by Jack Nicholson when playing Jack Torrance in "The Shining." Nicholson plays the film's protagonist, a writer who suffers a psychological breakdown while snowed-in with his family at an isolated Colorado hotel. King has said that the Jack Torrance character is based on a period from his own life where he was struggling with chemical dependency and writer's block.

Though "The Shining" was initially rebuked by critics, winning two Razzies (honoring the worst in cinematic achievements), Nicholson's performance in the film immediately resonated with audiences. His fervent portrayal of Torrance included a one-liner ripped straight out of the pop-culture milieu, making it an instant classic. But it wasn't planned that way.

Here's Johnny!

Arguably the most intense scene of the entire film is when Torrance hacks through a bathroom door to get to his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall). The scene is made more disturbing as the apoplectic ax-wielding Torrance recites nursery rhymes as he prepares to breach the bathroom door via his ax. Nicholson heaves, "Little pig, little pig, let me in..." as his face contorts with his growing anger. It's Nicholson at his finest.

Once Torrance hacks through part of the door, he forces his head through the chasm far enough to spy his wife and spews the line, "Here's Johnny!" The line makes no sense as the character's name is Jack and there was no reference to a "Johnny" earlier in the film (although Jack is often a nickname for people named John; just look at John F. Kennedy). Readers of the novel know the line wasn't spoken by Torrance, and according to Showbiz Cheatsheet, the line wasn't even in Kubrick's script. Instead, it was ad-libbed by Nicholson, and it came from the unlikeliest of places.

Nicholson slips one past Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick is notorious for requiring numerous takes of each scene in his productions. According to The Independent, Kubrick refused to promise to limit the number of takes for any given scene from "The Shining" to less than 100, and Duvall suffered from nervous exhaustion from her role as Wendy. The scene of a deranged Jack Torrance slashing through the door to get to Wendy took three days to shoot and Nicholson had to chop through sixty doors.

It's no wonder that Nicholson changed things up occasionally, given the repetition of Kubrick's intense shooting schedule. Even though it wasn't in the script, the take Kubrick eventually settled on featured the "Here's Johnny!" line. IMDB reports that the line was inspired by the popular late-night television program "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" and host Ed McMahon's introduction, "Here's Johny!" Because Kubrick had been in England when Carson became a household name in the U.S. and didn't understand the cultural reference, he left it in the film.

So, was it worth it? After three days of filming, 60 doors, and only Nicholson knows how many ax chops, the American Film Institute placed the ad-libbed line on its top film quotes of all-time list. And was it Carson-approved? "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" 18th Anniversary show that aired in 1980 opened with the scene from the film. The ad-libbed line is AFI tested, Carson approved.