Lee Van Cleef
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|Lee Van Cleef|
Van Cleef in Death Rides a Horse (1969)
|Born||Clarence LeRoy Van Cleef, Jr.
January 9, 1925
Somerville, New Jersey, U.S.
|Died||December 16, 1989
Oxnard, California, U.S.
Cause of death
|Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Hollywood Hills, California|
(1976–1989; his death)
Clarence Leroy "Lee" Van Cleef, Jr. (January 9, 1925 – December 16, 1989), was an American film actor who appeared mostly in Westerns and action pictures. His sharp features and piercing eyes led to his being cast as a villain in scores of films, such as Kansas City Confidential, High Noon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. After his success in the last of these, he played the hero in many of his later movies.
Van Cleef was born on January 9, 1925 in Somerville, New Jersey, the son of Marion Levinia (née Van Fleet) and Clarence LeRoy Van Cleef Sr. Both of his parents were of Dutch ancestry. The rumor that Van Cleef's mother was also of Indonesian ancestry has been proven false.
At the age of 17, Van Cleef obtained his high school diploma early in his senior year in order to enlist in the United States Navy in September, 1942. After basic training and further training at the Naval Fleet Sound School, he was assigned to a subchaser and then to a minesweeper, the USS Incredible, patrolling the Caribbean Sea where he worked as sonarman. Van Cleef's ship also did cruise orders in the Crimean Sea and participated in the invasion of Southern France. Van Cleef was awarded commendations in the form of: The American Theater and African-Mediterranean-European Ribbons plus one Bronze Star. Upon discharge from active duty in March, 1946, Van Cleef had also earned Sonar-man First Class, The Mine Sweeping Insignia, The Asiatic Pacific Medal, The Good Conduct Medal, The Eyes of Gabriel Plaque and The WWII Victory Medal.
After leaving the Navy, Van Cleef worked a series of jobs, including working on a cattle ranch, caretaker of a summer camp in Maine and subsequently accounting.
It was following his time in the Navy that Van Cleef was cajoled by a friend into reading for a part in an upcoming play, Our Town, at the Little Theater Group in Clinton, New Jersey. Van Cleef actually got the part.
From there, Van Cleef continued to meet with the group and audition for parts. The next biggest part was that of the boxer, Joe Pendleton, in the play Heaven Can Wait. During this time he was observed by visiting talent scouts who were impressed by Van Cleef's stage presence and delivery. One of these scouts later took him to New York City talent agent Maynard Morris of the MCA agency who then sent him to the Alvin Theater for an audition. The play was Mister Roberts. The company director, Joshua Logan, liked Van Cleef immediately and took him on for the role of Mannion, one of the onboard sailors. Later, the play would go on the road for fifteen months with star Henry Fonda in the lead as Lieutenant JG Roberts.
During one of the performances of Mister Roberts in Los Angeles, Van Cleef was noticed by film director Stanley Kramer who offered Van Cleef a role in his upcoming film High Noon, in which seasoned professional Gary Cooper was already signed for the lead. Kramer originally wanted Van Cleef for the role of the deputy Harvey Pell, but as he wanted Van Cleef to have his "distinctive nose" fixed, Van Cleef declined the role in favor of the part of the silent gunslinger Jack Colby. This later proved to be a positive game change for him, as his was the "first to be seen" presence in the opening credits of High Noon and garnered him plenty of attention. Van Cleef was then cast mostly in villain roles. His trademark looks — sharp cheeks and chin, piercing eyes, hawk-like nose — gave him a style that went beyond words on screen. (The rumor that Van Cleef had "one green eye and one blue eye" has repeatedly been shown to be false.)
Van Cleef was cast in many film and television roles after High Noon, mainly as a villain, from the part of Tony Romano in the film noir Kansas City Confidential in 1952 and culminating 14 years later in Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In 1956, he co-starred with Peter Graves in the B-grade science fiction movie It Conquered the World.
Van Cleef appeared six times between 1951 and 1955 on the children's syndicated western series, The Adventures of Kit Carson, starring Bill Williams. He was cast three times, including the role of Rocky Hatch in the episode "Greed Rides the Range" (1952), of another syndicated western series, The Range Rider, starring Jock Mahoney and Dick Jones. In 1952, he was cast in the episode "Formula for Fear" of the western aviation series Sky King, starring Kirby Grant and Gloria Winters. He also appeared in episode 82 of the TV series The Lone Ranger in 1952.
In 1955, he was cast twice on another syndicated western series, Annie Oakley, starring Gail Davis and Brad Johnson. That same year, he guest-starred on the CBS western series, Brave Eagle, starring Keith Larsen. Also in 1955 he played one of the two villains in an episode of The Adventures of Champion the Wonder Horse.
In 1958, Van Cleef was cast as Ed Murdock, a rodeo performer trying to reclaim the title in the event as Madison Square Garden in New York City, on the CBS crime drama series, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, starring David Janssen and Regis Toomey. Before he could make his career finale, however, Murdock was murdered through a conspiracy by his wife and her lover, played by Barbara Baxley and Harry Lauter. Dan Blocker appeared in the episode as the rodeo performer Cloudy Sims.
Van Cleef played different minor characters on four episodes of ABC's The Rifleman, with Chuck Connors, between 1959 and 1962, and twice on ABC's Tombstone Territory. In 1958, he was cast as Deputy Sid Carver in the episode "The Great Stagecoach Robbery" of another syndicated western series, Frontier Doctor, starring Rex Allen. Van Cleef appeared in 1959 as Luke Clagg in the episode "Strange Request" of the NBC western series Riverboat, starring Darren McGavin.
Van Cleef played a sentry on an episode of the ABC sitcom The Real McCoys, with Walter Brennan. Van Cleef was cast with Pippa Scott and again with Chuck Connors in the 1960 episode "Trial by Fear" of the CBS anthology series The DuPont Show with June Allyson. A young Van Cleef also made an appearance as Frank Diamond in The Untouchables, in an episode entitled "The Unhired Assassin." He also appeared in an episode of the ABC/Warner Brothers western series The Alaskans, starring Roger Moore.
Van Cleef guest-starred on the CBS western series Have Gun - Will Travel, on the ABC/WB series Colt .45, on the NBC western series Cimarron City and Laramie, and on Rod Cameron's syndicated crime dramas City Detective and State Trooper. He guest-starred in an episode of John Bromfield's syndicated crime drama, Sheriff of Cochise. Van Cleef starred as minor villains and henchmen in various westerns, including The Tin Star and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
In 1958, a severe car crash nearly cost Van Cleef his life and career. A resulting knee injury made his physicians think that he would never ride a horse again. This injury plagued Van Cleef for the rest of his life and caused him great pain. His recovery was long and arduous and halted his acting for a time. He then began a business in interior decoration with second wife Joan, as well as pursuing his talent for painting, primarily of sea and landscapes. He described his down time from acting jobs as unhealthy dry spells. His acting career, it seemed, had run its course ending with many television appearances. It took his career some time to recover from this blow and in contrast to his earlier major roles, he had for several years only occasional small parts. He appeared as a villainous swindler in the Bonanza episode, "The Bloodline" (December 31, 1960). Also in 1960 he made an appearance in the Gunsmoke episode "Old Flame", in which he played a happily married man with an old flame scorned that tries to deceive Marshall Dillon into killing him. He played one of Lee Marvin's villainous henchmen in the 1962 John Ford movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, with James Stewart and John Wayne. He had a small, uncredited role as one of the river pirates in the 1962 film How the West Was Won. In 1963, Van Cleef appeared on CBS's Perry Mason in "The Case of the Golden Oranges." That same year he played Raoul Volta in "The Day of the Misfits" on the ABC western series The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, based on a Robert Lewis Taylor novel, with child actor Kurt Russell in the title role.
However, in 1965, his career revived when the young Italian director Sergio Leone boldly cast Van Cleef, whose career was still in the doldrums, as one of the two protagonists, alongside Clint Eastwood, in the second of Leone's westerns, For a Few Dollars More. Leone then chose Van Cleef to appear again with Eastwood, this time as the primary villain Angel Eyes in the now seminal western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). With his roles in Leone's films, Van Cleef became a major star of Spaghetti Westerns, playing central, and often surprisingly heroic, roles in films such as Death Rides a Horse, Day of Anger, The Big Gundown, The Sabata Trilogy, and The Grand Duel. Van Cleef also had a supporting role in John Carpenter's cult film Escape from New York. In 1984, Van Cleef was cast as a ninja master in the NBC adventure series The Master, but it was canceled after thirteen episodes. All in all, he is credited with 90 movie roles and 109 other television appearances over a 38-year span.
In the early 1980s, Van Cleef appeared in a very popular series of commercials for Midas mufflers, in which he played up his gunfighter persona, playing opposite many character actors of the time, including Jack Palance, John Saxon, and George Kennedy.
Van Cleef was married three times. He and his first wife, Patsy Ruth, were married from 1943 until their divorce in 1960. Later that year, he married his second wife, Joan Drane. He and Drane divorced in 1974. Two years later, he married his third wife, Barbara Havelone, to whom he remained married until his death in 1989.
Despite suffering from heart disease from the late 1970s and having a pacemaker installed in the early 1980s, Van Cleef continued to work in films until his death on December 16, 1989, at the age of 64. He collapsed in his home in Oxnard, California, from a heart attack. Throat cancer was listed as a secondary cause of death. Van Cleef is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Hollywood Hills, California.
In popular culture
Lee van Cleef's characters in the Sergio Leone movies were inspiration for the character Elliot Belt in the Lucky Luke comic album, The Bounty Hunter.
British rock band The Strypes reference Lee Van Cleef in their song "Angel Eyes".
- Actors of the Spaghetti Westerns, chapter Lee Van Cleef, by James Prickett
- Actors of the Spaghetti Westerns, by James Prickette, Lee Van Cleef: The Best of the Bad, by Michael G McGlisson, Lee Van Cleef: A Biographical, Film and Television Reference, by Mike Malloy
- ""Rodeo", Richard Diamond, Private Detective, February 20, 1958". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved March 30, 2013.
- Magers, Boyd. "Lee Van Cleef". Western Clippings. Retrieved 18 January 2014.
- Lee Van Cleef at the Internet Movie Database
- Lee Van Cleef at AllMovie
- Lee Van Cleef at Find a Grave
- TheBad.net: A Tribute to Lee Van Cleef