Vanity Fair called the scene in 1969’s Midnight Cowboy where street hustler Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) slaps the hood of a taxi and yells, “I’m walkin’ here!” the movie’s most iconic scene. It is memorable and although it looks carefully planned, was completely improvised.
“They didn’t have the money to close down a New York street,” Hoffman told Peter Biskind in Vanity Fair, “so they were going to steal it [shoot guerrilla style, without permits]. The camera was in a van across the street. It was a difficult scene logistically because those were real pedestrians and there was real traffic, and [director John] Schlesinger wanted to do it in one shot—he didn’t want to cut. He wanted us to walk, like, half a block, and the first times we did it the signal turned red. We had to stand there, and it was killing us, because Schlesinger was getting very upset. He came rushing out of the van, saying, ‘Oh, oh you’ve got to keep walking.’ ‘We can’t, man. There’s fucking traffic.’ ‘Well, you’ve got to time it.’ ‘Well, we’re trying to time it.’ It’s the actors who always get the heat. It was many takes, and then the timing was right. Suddenly we were doing this take and we knew it was going to work. We got to the signal just as it was turning green, so we could keep walking. But it just happened—there was a real cab trying to beat the signal. Almost hit us. John, who couldn’t see anything in the van, came running out, saying, ‘What was that all about? Why did you ruin it by hitting the cab? Why were you yelling?’ I said, ‘You know, he almost hit us.’ I guess the brain works so quickly, it said, in a split of a second, ‘Don’t go out of character.’ So I said, ‘I’m walking here,’ meaning ‘We’re shooting a scene here, and this is the first time we ever got it right, and you have fucked us up.’ Schlesinger started laughing. He clapped his hands and said, ‘We must have that, we must have that,’ and re-did it two or three times because he loved it.”
Midnight Cowboy, the story of a green male prostitute (Voight) and his sickly friend’s (Hoffman) struggle for survival on New York City’s mean streets, was very controversial when it was released in 1969. The film—about which one studio exec laughably said, “If we could clean this up and add a few songs, it could be a great vehicle for Elvis Presley”—was originally rated X, before that rating became the domain of the porno industry, so there is a truckload of trivia about it. At the April 7, 1970 Oscar ceremony it was the first, and so far only X-rated film to win the Best Picture Oscar; Jimmy Carter requested it be shown in the White House screening room, making it the only X-rated film to be shown to a U.S. President while in office and it was the first X-rated film to be shown on television, although the film’s rating had been changed to R by the time of the film’s television premiere.
Co-stars Jon Voight and Hoffman—who kept pebbles in his shoe to ensure his limp would be consistent from shot to shot—were both nominated for Best Actor Oscars, but went away empty handed.