MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Dustin Hoffman improvised the famous “I’m walkin’ here” scene in Midnight Cowboy.
The 1969 film, Midnight Cowboy, was a bit of a watershed moment in American cinematic history, in that it was originally released with an X rating. When it then won the Academy Award for best picture, it was the first (and only) X-rated film to ever win the award. The success of the film, about a naive male prostitute from Texas (the titular “Midnight Cowboy,” played by Jon Voight) and a hustler that he met in New York City (played by Dustin Hoffman), helped to change the way that Hollywood would treat topics that would normally be seen as too noncommercial to be made into studio films (the film made over $40 million on a budget of roughly $3 million).
In any event, in one of the most famous scenes in the film, Voight and Hoffman are walking down the street when Hoffman is almost hit by a cab and he hits the front of the cab and shouts, “Hey! I’m walkin’ here!”
Famously, the scene has been described by Hoffman many time over the years as being improvised. He told the National Post:
“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.
The issue, though, is that producer Jerome Hellman, in the Director’s Commentary of the film, said that the scene in the film was filmed with an extra in the cab. Similarly, director John Schlesinger recalled, “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.”
The issue, I believe, is that later in Hoffman’s story, he notes that Schlesinger said, after the moment where Hoffman says, “I’m walkin’ here,” that “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.” I add the emphasis to note that often, when Hoffman tells the story, he notes that very point, that they then did the scene a number of times after that.
Therefore, it is logical to believe that they then got an extra in a cab to re-do the scene, which is what Hellman and Schlesigner both recall happening.
So, to me, it seems as though the legend is…
STATUS: More True than False, but at least understandable in people thinking it is “false.”
Be sure to check out my archive of Movie Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of film.
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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