Lee Van Cleef
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Lee Van Cleef

Lee Van Cleef was an American character actor who had appeared in countless Western movies, before the great Italian director Sergio Leone cast him in his classic Spaghetti Western For a Few Dollars More.

"When I'm paid, I always follow my job through."

Lee Van Cleef was an American character actor who had appeared in countless Western movies, before the great Italian director Sergio Leone cast him in his classic Spaghetti Western For a Few Dollars More. Van Cleef’s sharp features, piercing eyes and dangerous cool led to a spectacular career revival, and he went on to play unforgettable villains in scores of films.

Clarence LeRoy Van Cleef, Jr. was born in Somerville, New Jersey. His parents were Marion Levinia and Clarence LeRoy Van Cleef, Sr., both of whom were of Dutch ancestry. During World War II, Van Cleef served in the US Navy aboard minesweepers and submarine chasers. He became an actor after the war and his first experiences were in theatre, including a small role in the Broadway play Mister Roberts. His first film was the classic Western High Noon, in which he played a villain. He also won bit parts the The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and It Conquered the World.

Besides Westerns and the science fiction films, two of his early major roles were in films noirs Kansas City Confidential and The Big Combo. Van Cleef played Burt Tanner in the children's western The Adventures of Kit Carson. In 1954, he appeared as Jesse James in the series Stories of the Century. Van Cleef starred as minor villains and henchmen in various westerns, including The Tin Star and Gunfight at the OK Corral. Van Cleef suffered a serious car accident in 1958, and was forced to retire from acting temporarily. It took his career some time to recover, but he played one of Lee Marvin's villainous henchmen in John Fords’ The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which incidentally was Sergio Leone’s favourite Western. He also had a small role as a river pirates in How the West Was Won.

Christopher Frayling, an academic and expert on Spaghetti Westerns has joked that Van Cleef made a career out of playing ‘the second baddie from the left.’ This changed when the brilliant Italian director Sergio Leone began casting his second Western. Leone had loved Hollywood Westerns since childhood, and had remembered the striking image cast by Van Cleef, despite being relegated to supporting roles. Van Cleef’s career revival began when Sergio Leone cast him alongside Clint Eastwood in For a Few Dollars More. Van Cleef appeared as the primary villain in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Leone’s films have been described as operas in which the arias are not sung, they are stared. This is due to Leone’s penchant for intense close-ups, and with his steely gaze, Van Cleef took close-ups better than anyone, except perhaps Eastwood himself.

Thanks to these roles, Van Cleef became a major star of Spaghetti Westerns, playing central roles in films such as Death Rides a Horse, Day of Anger, The Big Gundown and The Sabata Trilogy

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Comments (7)

Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef were great in all those old spaghetti westerns. Nicely done.

Ranked #1 in Popular Culture

Thanks for your comment. I agree, all three of them were cool in these films.

My father loved these kind of movies, I'm more into horror myself but have watched quite a few of these. great read as always Michael, sorry out of votes for today but will definately buzz this up.

Love all those cowboys - great flicks.

I am not into westerns, I did not recognize his name but I did recognize his photo.

Ranked #1 in Popular Culture

Thanks for all your comments. I don't think Van Cleef has had the recognition he deserves, so it's nice to spread the word. And yes, he was very striking. Leone thought he looked like Van Gogh.

Lee Van Cleef – one of Hollywood's greatest heavies.