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Famous quotes: They put the words in actors’ mouths

If music is the soundtrack of our lives, then movies provide the audio track. From “Casablanca” to “Caddyshack,” and “The Wizard of Oz” to “Withnail and I,” there are some movies that film buffs love to quote. As the American Film Institute noted in 1995 when it selected its 100 most memorable movie quotes, they “evoke the memory of a treasured film, thus ensuring and enlivening its historical legacy.”

But dropped into conversation, cinema phraseology also gives us the perfect words to make us appear witty or sage. It is easy to forget that a writer (or writers) creates these gems. The most enduring come out of character and situation (Having an A-list star say the line doesn’t hurt either).

“If you set yourself up to write that one-liner that’s going to be iconic, you set yourself up to never have it happen,” observed Joseph Stinson. He ought to know. He wrote one of the most quoted lines in movie history.

Here are the stories behind four classic quotes that embody the films in which they appeared and became part of the national vocabulary.

‘Go ahead . . . make my day.’

-- ‘Sudden Impact’ Stinson must have felt lucky. After he created movie trailers and contributing poster tag lines for a couple of Clint Eastwood films, Eastwood called to ask whether he would be interested in writing a screenplay. Stinson’s first draft about a female avenger and the cop on her trail became “Sudden Impact,” which marked the return to the screen of Eastwood’s signature character, “Dirty Harry” Callahan, after a seven-year absence.

Stinson, a theater professional who had never written a screenplay, knew the film would need a “Do you feel lucky, punk?” moment. Eastwood did not ask him to write a “Make my day” (“That’s the last thing he would do,” Stinson insisted in a phone interview), but Stinson knew audiences would be anticipating it.

“It’s like Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan,” he said “They have those hits that people want to hear, but it’s the last thing they want to play. You feel kind of cheated [if they don’t play them], but then you hate it if it’s not good enough.”

But Stinson saw a place in the script where he could create a scene that would dramatize Callahan’s uncompromising code of conduct. Early in the film, Harry enters the Acorn Café. A robbery is in progress. He dispatches all but one of the gunmen, who holds a hostage at gunpoint. Harry draws his .44 Magnum and growls the immortal words.

How did Stinson come up with that line? “Once a method actor, always a method actor,” he said. “I thought about the character. He lives by a code: ‘This is what I am, this is what I’m going to do. You decide.’ ”

“Make my day” almost instantly took on a life of its own. Even President Reagan evoked it when taunting “tax increasers.”

“I’ll be honest, I thought it was a pretty good line,” Stinson said. “I walked around L.A. testing it out in my imagination. If someone cut in front of me at midnight in the eight items or less line, I’d give ‘em the squint.”

‘There’s no crying in baseball.’

-- ‘A League of Their Own’ Writing partners Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, whose credits include “City Slickers” and “Parenthood,” hit it out of the park when they came up with this indelible line for Tom Hanks’ washed-up ballplayer-turned-manager Jimmy Dugan to rant to a sobbing member of the all-girl Georgia Peaches baseball team.

The line came out of their improvisational approach to screenwriting.

“For us,” Ganz said in a joint phone interview, “the best stuff really comes conversationally. Nobody sits down and says, ‘What would be a great line here?’ It has to come out of the character organically. That’s why the line is effective. You believe that he’s genuinely appalled that a ballplayer would cry.”

They had no idea the phrase would catch on with the public until they saw the scene being filmed. “Tom was so funny doing it,” Mandel said. “For a writer, that moment of hearing your lines brought to fruition perfectly by a terrific performer is always gratifying. We knew that was one of those cases.”

‘What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.’

-- ‘Cool Hand Luke’ Warner Bros.’ marketing team knew what they had. This classic line, drawled by Florida prison camp warden Strother Martin to rebellious convict Paul Newman, was featured in the film’s theatrical trailer five times.

But screenwriter Frank Pierson wasn’t so sure. He created the line, which was not in the book on which the film was based.

“I couldn’t tell you where that line came from,” he said in a phone interview. “I can still visualize where I was [when I wrote it]. I was typing on my old Underwood in my house overlooking the sea in Malibu. In the scene, Luke has been recaptured and the warden wants to teach him a lesson. This whole thing has to do with getting Luke’s mind right. And suddenly it materialized on the page in front of me. .

“But then I thought it sounded like something a highly educated person would say and that everybody involved with the movie would ask how this Southern redneck could say something that has a certain smell of academia. But nobody ever questioned [the line]. Strother Martin got it right away and said it perfectly.”

The line has been referenced in everything from “Rugrats” to a recent episode of “Californication.” It came to crystallize 1960s discontent and the generation gap. “I can’t tell you how many people have told me that this was a part of their [upbringing],” Pierson said, laughing. “When they crashed the family car, their dad would look at them sadly and say, ‘What we’ve got here. . . .’ ”

‘Mama always said, “Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” ’

-- ‘Forrest Gump’ When Eric Roth set about adapting Winston Groom’s farcical book, “Forrest Gump,” to the screen, he didn’t know what he was going to get. The book contained this line: “Being an idiot is no box of chocolates.” Roth took a more humanistic approach for his Oscar-winning screenplay and, with a clarifying addition prompted by director Robert Zemeckis, created the film’s signature line.

“I tried to create aphorisms that didn’t particularly make sense, but they seemed to make sense within the context of this character saying them,” he said in a phone interview. “My own mother used to say, ‘Handsome is as handsome does.’ I had Forrest say, ‘Stupid is as stupid does.’ ”

“Life is like a box of chocolates” was originally as much as Roth wrote, he recalled. “Upon going through the script, Bob demanded, ‘What the hell does this mean?’ I said, ‘You know, you never know what you’re going to get.’ And that’s how the line came about.”

“You don’t write something because you think it will catch on, but when you hear it at the read through, you think it could catch on if this movie becomes popular.”

Such was the case with “chocolates.” Right after the film opened, Roth went to the racetrack. “I was waiting in line to make a bet,” he recalled. “Someone asked a guy in front of me if a horse was going to win or lose, and the man responded in a thick accent, ‘Life is like a box of chocolates. . .’ ”

It is gratifying when a line of dialogue resonates with people, Roth said, because it means “the movie meant something to them.”

calendar@latimes.com


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