Childhood & Early Life
Lee Van Cleef was born on January 9, 1925, in Somerville, New Jersey, US to Clarence LeRoy Van Cleef and Marion Van Fleet (née Levinia). He was of partial Dutch ancestry.
He attended Somerville High School and received high school diploma at 17, a bit early in his senior year to enlist in the United States Navy (USN) in September 1942.
After enlisting in the USN, Cleef completed his basic and other trainings at the Naval Fleet Sound School and was thereafter delegated to a submarine chaser. After a stint there, he was inducted as a sonarman in the Admirable-class minesweeper ‘USS Incredible’.
Thereafter, he travelled with a minesweeper and performed several war duties before returning to Palermo, Sicily, on February 20, 1945.
Cleef was discharged from duties in March 1946 when he was holding the rank of Sonarman First Class (S01) and garnered his mine sweeper patch.
As a result of his contributions in military, he received the Good Conduct Medal and the Bronze Star and also qualified for the ‘World War II Victory Medal’, the ‘American Campaign Medal’, the ‘Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal’ and the ‘European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal’.
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Following his tenure with the USN, Cleef, who also worked for a while as an accountant, got associated with the entertainment industry. He became involved with ‘Little Theater Group’ in Clinton, New Jersey, doing parts for them in plays including ‘Our Town’ and ‘Heaven Can Wait’ while also auditioning for other roles.
Around this time he was noticed by several visiting talent scouts, and one of whom introduced him to MCA agency’s talent agent Maynard Morris in New York City. Cleef was sent for an audition at the Alvin Theater by Morris where he landed up with the play ‘Mister Roberts’. He remained part of its original production and travelled to many cities performing in the play’s national touring production.
Film director Stanley Kramer spotted him at a ‘Mister Roberts’ stage production in Los Angeles and wanted to cast him in the role of Deputy Harvey Pell in the American Western film ‘High Noon’. However, when Cleef declined to alter his "distinctive nose" as Kramer wanted, he landed up with the non-speaking role of henchman Jack Colby in the 1952 film, marking his screen debut.
He had heterochromatic eyes - one being green and the other blue. However, his sinister features with hook nose, steely eyes and sharp cheeks and chin soon typecast him in minor villainous roles in films of different genres for the next 13 years or so.
Some of these films include the 1952 noir crime film ‘Kansas City Confidential’; the 1956 CinemaScope epic film ‘The Conqueror’; the 1957 western film ‘The Tin Star’; and the 1958 CinemaScope war drama film ‘The Young Lions’.
He also forayed into television in the early 1950s with initial works like ‘The Adventures of Kit Carson’ (1951 -1955, 6 episodes), ‘Sky King’ (1952, 1 episode) and ‘The Range Rider’ (1952–1953, 3 episodes) among others.
Over the years, he featured in many other TV series. These include ‘Death Valley Days’ (1954–1962, 2 episodes), ‘The Rifleman’ (1959–1962, 4 episodes); ‘Laramie’ (1960–1963, 4 episodes) and ‘Cheyenne’ (1961–1962, 3 episodes) to mention a few. The most notable TV appearance of Cleef was the starring role of John Peter McAllister in the ninja-themed action-adventure TV series ‘The Master’ that aired on NBC from January 20, 1984 to August 31 of that year.
He got his major break in films when Italian film director, producer and screenwriter Sergio Leone known for creating the "Spaghetti Western" genre offered him the role of Col. Douglas Mortimer, one of the main protagonists in the spaghetti Western film ‘For a Few Dollars More’. The film released in 1965 and became a major commercial hit.
In ‘For a Few Dollars More’ Cleef starred opposite Clint Eastwood. The role came to him at a critical juncture when he was striving to prolong his otherwise waning career. It gave his career a major boost garnering him fame and recognition as an actor of mettle and opened way for several other notable roles.
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His second collaboration with Leone ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, a 1966 epic Spaghetti Western film, was an even bigger success that furthered his fame to new heights. He played a hard-hearted, merciless and sociopathic mercenary called ‘Angel Eyes: The Bad’ in the film, which garnered a whopping $25.1 million at the box-office against its budget of $1.2 million.
Cleef’s performance in ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ and ‘For a Few Dollars More’ established him as a big star of Spaghetti Westerns. He started getting several major and central characters in different films, both as hero and anti-hero.
His first film following ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ titled ‘The Big Gundown’ (1966) saw him playing Jonathan Corbett, the protagonist. His other central roles includes ‘Day of Anger’ (1967), ‘Death Rides a Horse’ (1967) and ‘The Grand Duel’ (1972).
The Gianfranco Parolini directed 1969 Italian Spaghetti Western film ‘Sabata’ and its second sequel ‘Return of Sabata’ (1971) featured Cleef in the titular role.
His other notable films include the 1975 DeLuxe Color Italian-American Spaghetti Western film ‘Take a Hard Ride’, the 1976 Italian–Israeli Spaghetti Western film ‘God's Gun’; and the 1981 dystopian science-fiction action film ‘Escape from New York’ among others.
Personal Life & Legacy
He was married to his high school sweetheart Patsy Ruth from 1943 to 1960 and had three children with her David, Alan and Deborah.
He married Joan Marjorie Drane on April 9, 1960, but the marriage culminated into divorce in 1974. They had an adopted daughter, Denise.
Meanwhile in 1958 he met with a severe car accident that almost ended his life. He had to take a hiatus from acting thereafter and during such time he ventured into an interior decoration business along with his second wife, Joan.
On July 13, 1976, he married Barbara Havelone.
Cleef breathed his last on December 16, 1989, and was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, Hollywood Hills, California. The gravestone of this great screen villain bears an inscription that says "BEST OF THE BAD".