Classic Hollywood #80 – Lee Van Cleef

The Man With A Name, The Menacing Lee Van Cleef

Lee Van Cleef in Return of Sabata

For nearly 40 years Lee Van Cleef was typecast. He made a living at playing villains. But as he observed, “I didn’t much care if I got out of that bad guy role. I fell in love with the characters. I could do things I couldn’t do in real life, and generally a bad guy is a more colorful part. It’s always more fun to be nasty.”

A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, a trio of “spaghetti westerns” made by Italian director Sergio Leone from 1964-1967 established Clint Eastwood “the man with no name” as a major film star.

The second and third films of the Eastwood- Leone films, also brought Lee Van Cleef from mid-level billing status to international stardom.

For 15 years with hawk-like looks, penetrating gaze and low voice, the lean six foot two Lee Van Cleef toiled in films and television, almost always cast as a bad guy. He struggled to make ends meet.

The Breakthrough Role

But on April 10, 1965 Lee signed a contract for 30 percent more than he had ever previously made to co-star as bounty hunter Colonel Mortimer in For A Few Dollars More.

Up until the signing, Lee and his wife Joan had been living on residuals from television appearances, unemployment checks and her salary as a secretary. Prior to committing to the film Lee had not appeared in a film since 1962. When the advance payment was presented to Lee from a briefcase containing $10,000 in cash, he took the money, drove to his agent and paid him his ten percent.

Lee then hurried home and without saying a word tossed an envelope full of money near his wife Joan. The rubber band holding the money broke and bills were strewn about the room.

Joan who had not previously known that Lee was going to be offered a major film part was in disbelief. Delirious with joy, she alternated between laughing and crying and it took her four times to count all the money,

Lee’s life literally changed overnight. He was in Italy two days later and began filming immediately. When completed, For A Few Dollars More and Van Cleef were huge hits.

Why had  director Sergio Leone chosen Lee Van Cleef for the part of Colonel Mortimer?  It wasn’t because of his acting. “He told my wife that when he saw me, that was the face he wanted,” Van Cleef said. “Which was a putdown for me. What have I got to do with my face? An actor likes to think he’s an actor because of his talent, not his face!”

Clarence Leroy Van Cleef was born January 9, 1925 and grew up in Somerville, New Jersey. He dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Navy during World War II.

After getting out of the Navy, Lee worked on the estate of Doris Duke. He then was employed at a factory during the day and worked as a public accountant at night. In 1947, a friend who was part of an amateur theater troupe suggested Lee take up acting. He joined the troupe and received his first break in 1950.  Director Joshua Logan hired Lee for the National touring company of Mister Roberts.

With  Sheb Wooley, Bob Wilke, Ian MacDonald, Lee played Jack Colby, one of the four villains in the 1952 classic High Noon. With his dangerous looks he never had to utter a word in the film, which paid him $500 a week. Afterwards, Lee took on all the work he could in television and films, usually appearing in small roles, almost always as the villain.

After co-starring in Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly as “Angel Eyes” aka “The Bad,” Lee made eight straight box office successes and by 1969 was commanding $400,000 to $500,00 per picture.

Off camera Lee’s hobby was portrait and figure painting and he was a good enough artist to sell some of his works.

Lee was married three times. His first marriage in 1943 was to his high school sweetheart Patsy Ruth Kahle with whom he had three children, Alan, Deborah and David. That marriage ended in divorce. He married  Joan Drane in 1960, and they divorced in 1974. His wed his third wife Barbara Havelone in 1976.

“He wasn’t a disciplinarian,” his son Alan Van Cleef said, he let my mom do that. He wasn’t good at that. He’s probably one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet.”

At the age of 64 on December 16,1989 Lee Van Cleef suffered a fatal heart attack, Unknown to the public, Lee had recently been diagnosed with throat cancer. His grave marker in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery reads, “The Best of the Bad.”

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