Lee Van Cleef was a well-known American actor, who is perhaps best remembered for starring mainly in Italian Spaghetti Western films such as the “Dollars Trilogy”
Age, Early Life, and Education Background
Born Clarence L. Van Cleef Jr. under the Capricorn zodiac sign on 9 January 1925, in Somerville, New Jersey, he was the son of Marion Lavinia Van Cleef and Clarence LeRoy Van Cleef – Clarence was of Dutch ancestry.
Van Cleef was educated at Somerville High School, New Jersey, from where he matriculated at the age of 17. Subsequently, he joined the US Navy during World War II, and after completing his training at the Naval Fleet Sound School, Lee was posted to a submarine chaser. He later served as a sonarman and worked with minesweepers, before being based in Palermo, Sicily, in February 1945. Lee held the rank of Sonarman First Class when he left the US Navy in 1946; he was awarded the Bronze Star, mine sweeper patch, and the Good Conduct Medal for his service. Moreover, he qualified for the American Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, and Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal.
Facts and Hobbies
Lee usually played villainous roles, and as a result, his grave marker has an inscription that reads ‘BEST OF THE BAD.’
In 1959, he was involved in a serious car accident that left his left kneecap badly damaged. Although the doctors stated that the actor would never be able to ride on horses again in his life, he proved them wrong when he got in the saddle just six months after the accident.
Lee appeared in a string of unsuccessful movies in the ‘50s and ‘60s and was about to give up when he was cast in the film “For a Few Dollars More,” which revitalized his career.
Lee began his acting career as a reader for Thornton Wilder’s three-part play, “Our Town,” which was performed at the Little Theater Group, Clinton, New Jersey. He was later cast as the boxer, J. Pendleton, in the acclaimed play “Heaven Can Wait.” His skillful performance saw him noticed by a talent scout, who later introduced him to the New York City-based talent agent, Maynard Morris, who recommended that he audition for a role in the play “Mister Roberts” at the Neil Simon Theater, which was then known as the Alvin Theater.
Screen Debut and Early Roles
Van Cleef was mostly cast as a villain in films and TV series due to his sharp chin and cheeks, piercing hunter eyes, and hawk-like nose. In 1952, he made his screen debut in the Western film “High Noon” after he was offered a role by the American film producer and director Stanley Kramer, who had noticed him during the performance of the play “Mister Roberts.”
In the same year, Van Cleef made his TV debut in an episode of the Western aviation TV series “Sky King”, and his following appearances were in the Western series “The Range Rider” and “The Lone Ranger” both in 1952, and later He later made six appearances (1953-1955) in the Bill Williams-starred children’s syndicated Western TV series “The Adventure of Kit Carson.” Some of Van Cleef’s major movie roles in the ‘50s were in the 1952 film “Kansas City Confidential,” 1953’s “Vice Squad,” and 1955’s “The Big Combo.” In the mid to late ‘50s, he was seen in several Western series such as “Annie Oakley” and “Brave Eagle” (both in 1955), “Tales of Wells Fargo” (1957), and CBS’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” (1959).
In 1960, Van Cleef shared the screen with the late Academy Award-winning actor Walter Brennan, in the ABC TV sitcom “The Real McCoys” and Chuck Connors in an episode of the CBS series “The DuPont Show with June Allyson.” He also made appearances in the CBS sitcom “The Andy Griffith Show”, and the Western television and radio drama series “Gunsmoke.”
In 1965, the Italian film producer and director Sergio Leone, cast Van Cleef to star (as Colonel Douglas Mortimer) alongside Clint Eastwood in the Spaghetti Western movie “For a Few Dollars More,” which turned out to be his career-defining role. Leone later cast him with Eastwood again to play Angel Eyes, who was the primary antagonist of the 1966 Italian Spaghetti Western “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Leone’s films propelled Van Cleef to stardom, and he was later cast to play central and heroic roles in several other Spaghetti Westerns such as “The Big Gundown” in 1966, “Day of Anger” in 1967, and “The Magnificent Seven Ride” (1972), which was the last sequel of the acclaimed 1960 Western movie “The Magnificent Seven.”
Van Cleef is also remembered for his role of Kiefer in the Antonio Margheriti-directed Italian-American Spaghetti Western, “Take a Hard Ride,” in which he co-starred alongside Jim Brown in 1975. He slipped out of the limelight in the early ‘80s, but in his four-decade-long career, he appeared in over 109 TV series and 90 films, which made him a household name.
In December 1943, Van Cleef exchanged vows with Patsy Ruth Kahle, who was his high school sweetheart, a native of Tucson, Arizona. The couple welcomed two sons, David who was a painter and CEO of The Van Cleef Company, and Alan who was an engineer and former Air National Guard Officer – they also had a daughter named Deborah Van Cleef, who has performed with her rootsy rustbelt folk music band for over two decades. They divorced in 1960 – Patsy passed away on 31 July 2006 aged 81.
Lee married his second wife, Joan Marjorie Drane, in April 1960, and adopted her daughter, Joan Marjorie Drane, after their marriage. After being involved in a car accident in the late ‘50s, Lee took a break from acting, and began an interior decoration company with Drane. The couple divorced in 1974.
On 13 July 1976, Lee walked the aisle with the actress, Barbara Havelone, with whom he remained until his death.
Lee was diagnosed with heart disease in the late ‘70s and had an artificial cardiac pacemaker installed in the ‘80s. Despite this, he continued working in movies until he died of a heart attack at his home in Oxnard, Ventura City, California, on 16 December 1989, when he was 64 years old. His secondary cause of death was throat cancer. The legendary actor was laid to rest at the Hollywood Hills-based Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery.
Height, Weight, and Physical Appearance
Van Cleef was of White ethnicity, had dark brown hair (which had turned gray by the time he died), and a set of hazel eyes. He was muscular, weighed around 195lbs (88kgs), and was 6ft 2ins (1.88m) tall. Some of his distinctive features included a low, authoritative voice and beady eyes.
Van Cleef made a name for himself with his iconic appearances. He accumulated most of his wealth through acting, and was worth approximately $2 million at the time of his death.