Dustin Hoffman's Quick Wit Created One Of The Most Famous Lines In Hollywood History

Even if you've never seen "Midnight Cowboy," John Schlesinger's gritty look at the American dream and masculinity in urban America, you're probably familiar with the bit of someone nearly getting hit by a car and shouting, "I'm walkin' here!" It's one of the most famous lines in Hollywood history. You may have seen the reference in "Back to the Future Part II" or "Forrest Gump," the latter of which also uses Harry Nilsson's famous song "Everybody's Talkin'" from "Midnight Cowboy." Released in 1969, "Midnight Cowboy" centers on a naive male prostitute named Joe Buck (Jon Voight) from Texas who travels to New York City seeking fortune, and develops a strong bond with Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a boisterous street urchin. 

When the pair are crossing Sixth Avenue, a cab almost hits Ratso; he slams on the hood and yells, "Hey, I'm walkin' here!" then starts cursing at the driver. It's an electric moment that has the intense, organic feeling of being in a crowded and bustling city. And according to Dustin Hoffman, it was entirely improvised. 

How the scene unfolded

Hoffman made up the line when he and Voight almost got run down by the cab. During a TIFF Interview in 2012, Hoffman explained how the film's low budget impacted the shooting of the scene on Sixth Avenue. Hoffman said it was considered a "stolen shot," with hidden cameras across the street, the actors wearing radio mikes, and no extras. Since they had no control over the walking signals, the actors had to make sure they timed their dialogue correctly so they could cross the street on the green light. This required extra rehearsal and multiple takes.

He elaborated on the famous scene during a Tribeca 2017 Q&A (reported in The Huffington Post):

"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***ing cab has hit us."

Luckily, Hoffman was so in the moment that he managed to stay in character. He told the Tribeca audience, "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!'" It was a serendipitous occurrence that, although dangerous for the actors, made for an incredibly memorable scene. However, there is still some debate as to the true origins of the line and if Hoffman actually made it up.

Was the line really improvised?

The details of how the actual shooting of the sequence went down are a bit murky. In The Hollywood Interview, director John Schlesinger questions the origins of the line: "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." This statement is supported by producer Jerome Hellman's claim in the "Midnight Cowboy" DVD commentary (as reported by CBR) that he does not remember any improvisation occurring, and he agrees that an extra played the cab driver. Looking at Waldo Salt's script (via Daily Script), there is only a description for Ratsos determined street crossing, as he yammers on about his plans to pimp Joe: 

Joe hesitates as Ratso darts into traffic against a red light, yelling unheard obscenities at a cab driver who blasts his horn. Joe runs recklessly forward as Ratso slams the taxi fender with his fist, pretending to be hit, falling into Joe's arms. The taxi stops, halting traffic. Ratso, recovers, strolls casually in front of the cab, biting his thumb at the river.

As you can see, the actual line "I'm walkin' here!" is not in the official script, but the altercation with the taxi driver is. This contradicts Hoffman's belief that the cab was a real-life instance of near-death, but perhaps he was unaware that the filmmakers hired an extra to create that moment. Even if the cab nearly hitting the actors was not real and part of the screenwriter's outline, Dustin Hoffman still used his quick wit to create a line that would leave an indelible impression on our pop culture consciousness.