After also serving in the Navy during World War II, the man born Clarence LeRoy Van Cleef Jnr made his screen debut in one of the greatest westerns ever made - High Noon. Although the villainous role was only a small one and had no dialogue, it ensured Van Cleef was noticed by producers and led to regular character work for him; mainly as western heavies.
Despite regular work over the next 10 years, including roles in such classic movies as Gunfight at The OK Corral and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Lee Van Cleef was still just a jobbing actor with no name value. Thoughts of quitting the movie business altogether were forming in his mind. Little did he know that accepting a role in a low budget Italian western to be filmed in Spain in 1965 would change both his mind and his fortunes forever.
Italian director Sergio Leone was looking for another American actor to play opposite Clint Eastwood in a sequel to A Fistful of Dollars. Charles Bronson was approached but declined the offer. The future Death Wish star would finally appear in a Leone picture in 1969's epic Once Upon a Time in the West. Van Cleef was eventually offered the role in For a Few Dollars More and was so successful Leone cast him, in a different role, in the final part of the trilogy - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
Many Italian-produced westerns would follow for Van Cleef, with the quality varying greatly from poor to very good. Some of the better efforts included Death Rides a Horse, God's Gun and the quirky and very enjoyable Sabata.
As the popularity of westerns began to decline as the seventies wore on, Van Cleef returned to the States and made notable appearances in, amongst others, The Octagon opposite Chuck Norris and in John Carpenter's classic sci-fi actioner Escape from New York. He even had his own TV series, the somewhat short-lived The Master.
Lee Van Cleef suffered a heart attack and passed away on December 16th 1989 at the age of 64.
Lee Van Cleef - The Top 5 Movies
For a Few Dollars More (1965)
To my mind the best of Sergio Leone's iconic Dollars trilogy. Lee Van Cleef is superb as Colonel Mortimer, a bounty hunter who teams up with Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name to take down the villainous Indio (an intense Gian Maria Volonte) and his gang. Director Leone is really at the height of his powers here and the atmosphere he conjures almost drips off the screen. Superb camera work, a memorable score, wonderful locations, a great storyline and excellent performances all combine to make this one of the greatest westerns of all time.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966)
Magnificent. Momentous. Memorable.
Death Rides a Horse (1967)
Escape From New York (1981)
Once again, Lee Van Cleef is on top form as Prison Commissioner Bob Hauk, who forces Plissken into going on a rescue mission to bring back the kidnapped US President.
Escape from New York happily sits in my list of top 10 favourite movies of all time and is essential viewing for any fans of sci-fi action films.
Well, I hope this article has maybe made you want to rediscover some of the great films that Lee Van Cleef has been in and maybe even a couple of the poor ones too! Even in the worst films of his career, Van Cleef never gave a bad performance and ,indeed, his mere presence rescued some films from being complete disasters.
The Man with the Steely Gaze will always remain one of my favourite actors.
|Lee Van Cleef 1924-1989|