Roles alongside Clint Eastwood in the Sergio Leone Spaghetti westerns For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) make Lee Van Cleef one of the more recognizable names from some of the best and bloodiest Westerns. Yet neither classic was the first or last high-profile role for one of the all-time greats in the Western and action genres.
Clarence LeRoy Van Cleef Jr. was born on Jan. 9, 1925 in Somerville, New Jersey. He was the son of Marion Lavinia Van Fleet and Clarence LeRoy Van Cleef Sr.After serving in the Navy during World War II, Van Cleef took roles in such plays as Mister Roberts. The stage paved a path to the silver screen, with Van Cleef’s film debut coming in the 1952 Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly film High Noon. That same year, he was first typecast as a villain in the gangster film Kansas City Confidential.
After two more gangster films (Vice Squad (1953) and The Big Combo (1955)), Van Cleef started appearing in Western TV series as a character actor. He made appearances on Stories of the Century, The Rifleman, Maverick, Frontier Doctor, The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, Bonanza and other classic shows. He even pops up in an Andy Griffith Show episode.
A couple of late ’50s health scares–a car wreck and damage to a hand suffered while building his daughter a playhouse–proved to be minor setbacks as Van Cleef entered the decade that’d define his career.A more famous gig as a henchman came alongside John Wayne and Lee Marvin in the John Ford Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). He appeared that same year in another Ford film, How the West Was Won.
Leone turned Van Cleef into a star when he cast him as the bounty hunter Colonel Douglas Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More, the sequel to Eastwood’s first of three films as the Man With No Name, A Fistful of Dollars. A year later, Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes represented “the bad,” opposite Eastwood as “the good” and Eli Wallach as “the ugly.”Van Cleef became a regular in Italian spaghetti Westerns, often as a good guy, in such films as The Big Gundown (1966), Day of Anger (1967), The Grand Duel (1972), Sabata (1969), Take a Hard Ride (1975) and God’s Gun (1976).
Over the years, Van Cleef appeared not just in Westerns (Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), Barquero (1970), El Condor (1970) and The Magnificent Seven Ride (1972)) but also action films (Chuck Norris’ The Octagon (1980)), war movies (Commandos (1968)) and even one of the great cult favorites of the ’80s (John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981)).
In 1984, he returned to the small screen as one of the stars of NBC’s short-lived, ninja-themed TV series The Master. The very ’80s attempt at building off the network’s success with the A-Team featured a future film star, Demi Moore.Van Cleef died in his Oxnard, California home on Dec. 16, 1989. The 64-year old’s death was attributed to a heart attack, with throat cancer as the secondary cause of death. He’s buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Hollywood Hills, California. His tombstone reads “Best of the Bad.”