Lee Van Cleef

Clarence Leroy Van Cleef Jr. (January 9, 1925 – December 16, 1989), was an American actor best known for his roles in Spaghetti Westerns such as For A Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Hatchet-faced with piercing eyes, he declined to have his nose altered to play a sympathetic character in his film debut, High Noon, and was relegated to a non-speaking outlaw as a result. For a decade he was typecast as a minor villain, his "sinister" features overshadowing his acting skills. After suffering serious injuries in a car crash, Van Cleef had begun to lose interest in his declining career by the time Sergio Leone gave him a major role in For a Few Dollars More. The film made him a box-office draw, especially in Europe.

Lee Van Cleef
Van Cleef in Stories of the Century (1954)
Clarence LeRoy Van Cleef Jr.

(1925-01-09)January 9, 1925
Somerville, New Jersey, United States
DiedDecember 16, 1989(1989-12-16) (aged 64)
Oxnard, California, United States
Resting placeForest Lawn Memorial Park (Hollywood Hills)
Years active1952–1989
Military career
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Navy
Years of service1942–1946[1]
RankSonarman First Class (S01)
Battles/warsWorld War II


Van Cleef, born of partial Dutch, English and German ancestry on January 9, 1925, in Somerville, New Jersey,[2] was the son of Marion Lavinia Van Fleet and Clarence LeRoy Van Cleef. At age 17, he obtained his high school diploma early in his senior year at Somerville High School[3] in order to enlist in the United States Navy in September 1942.[4]

Military service

After basic training and further training at the Naval Fleet Sound School, Van Cleef was assigned to a submarine chaser and then to a minesweeper, USS Incredible, on which he worked as a sonarman.

The ship initially patrolled the Caribbean, then moved to the Mediterranean, participating in the landings in southern France. In January 1945, Incredible moved to the Black Sea, and performed sweeping duties out of the Soviet Navy base at Sevastopol, Crimea. Afterwards the ship performed air-sea rescue patrols in the Black Sea before returning to Palermo, Sicily. By the time of his discharge in March 1946, he had achieved the rank of Sonarman First Class (SO1) and had earned his mine sweeper patch. He also had been awarded the Bronze Star and the Good Conduct Medal. By virtue of his deployments, Van Cleef also qualified for the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the American Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal.[5]

Early acting career

After leaving the Navy, Van Cleef read for a part in Our Town at the Little Theater Group in Clinton, New Jersey and received his first stage role.[6] From there, he continued to meet with the group and audition for parts. The next biggest part was that of the boxer, Joe Pendleton, in the play Heaven Can Wait. During this time, he was observed by visiting talent scouts, who were impressed by Van Cleef's stage presence and delivery. One of these scouts later took him to New York City talent agent Maynard Morris of the MCA agency, who then sent him to the Alvin Theater for an audition. The play was Mister Roberts.

Van Cleef's screen debut came in High Noon.[2] During a performance of Mister Roberts in Los Angeles, he was noticed by film director Stanley Kramer, who offered Van Cleef a role in his upcoming film. Kramer originally wanted Van Cleef for the role of the deputy Harvey Pell, but as he wanted Van Cleef to have his "distinctive nose" fixed, Van Cleef declined the role in favor of the part of the silent gunslinger Jack Colby. He was then cast mostly in villainous roles, due to his sharp cheeks and chin, piercing eyes, and hawk-like nose, from the part of Tony Romano in Kansas City Confidential (1952),[7] culminating 14 years later in Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).[8]

Aside from Westerns and the science fiction films, three of his early major roles were in noir films, Kansas City Confidential (1952), Vice Squad (1953) and The Big Combo (1955). Van Cleef appeared six times between 1951 and 1955 on the children's syndicated Western series The Adventures of Kit Carson, starring Bill Williams. He was cast three times, including the role of Rocky Hatch in the episode "Greed Rides the Range" (1952), of another syndicated Western series, The Range Rider. In 1952, he was cast in the episode "Formula for Fear" of the Western aviation series Sky King. He appeared in episode 82 of the TV series The Lone Ranger in 1952.[9] In 1954, Van Cleef appeared as Jesse James in the syndicated series Stories of the Century.[10]

In 1955, he was cast twice on another syndicated Western series, Annie Oakley. That same year, he guest-starred on the CBS Western series, Brave Eagle. In 1955, he played one of the two villains in an episode of The Adventures of Champion the Wonder Horse. In 1958, he was cast as Ed Murdock, a rodeo performer trying to reclaim the title in the event at Madison Square Garden in New York City, on Richard Diamond, Private Detective.[11]

Van Cleef played different characters on four episodes of ABC's The Rifleman, with Chuck Connors, between 1959 and 1962, and twice on ABC's Tombstone Territory. In 1958, he was cast as Deputy Sid Carver in the episode "The Great Stagecoach Robbery" of another syndicated Western series, Frontier Doctor, starring Rex Allen. Van Cleef appeared in 1959 as Luke Clagg in the episode "Strange Request" of the NBC Western series Riverboat.

Van Cleef played a sentry on an episode of the ABC sitcom The Real McCoys, with Walter Brennan. Van Cleef was cast with Pippa Scott and again with Chuck Connors in the 1960 episode "Trial by Fear" of the CBS anthology series The DuPont Show with June Allyson. A young Van Cleef also made an appearance on The Andy Griffith Show and as Frank Diamond in The Untouchables, in an episode entitled "The Unhired Assassin". He also appeared in an episode of the ABC/Warner Brothers Western series The Alaskans.[12]

Van Cleef guest-starred on the CBS Western series Have Gun – Will Travel, on the ABC/Warner Bros. series Colt .45, on the NBC Western series Cimarron City and Laramie, and on Rod Cameron's syndicated crime dramas City Detective and State Trooper. He guest-starred in an episode of John Bromfield's syndicated crime drama Sheriff of Cochise. Van Cleef starred as minor villains and henchmen in various Westerns, including The Tin Star and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.[12] His film characters died in many of his Westerns and gangster portrayals.

In 1960, he appeared as a villainous swindler in the Bonanza episode, "The Bloodline" (December 31, 1960) and also made an appearance on Gunsmoke. In 1961, he played a role on episode 7 ("The Grave") of the third season of The Twilight Zone. He played a villainous henchman of Lee Marvin's title character in the 1962 John Ford movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In 1963, he appeared on Perry Mason (episode: "The Case of the Golden Oranges"). That same year, he appeared in "The Day of the Misfits" on The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters.


In 1965, Sergio Leone cast Van Cleef, whose career had yet to take off, as a main protagonist alongside Clint Eastwood in For a Few Dollars More.[12] Leone then chose Van Cleef to appear again with Eastwood, this time as the primary antagonist, Angel Eyes, in the now seminal Western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). With his roles in Leone's films, Van Cleef became a major star of Spaghetti Westerns, playing central, and often surprisingly heroic, roles in films such as The Big Gundown (1966), Death Rides a Horse (1967), Day of Anger (1967), and The Grand Duel (1972). He played the title role in Sabata (1969) and Return of Sabata (1971), and co-starred with Jim Brown in an Italian-American co-production, Take a Hard Ride (1975). In his final two westerns he co-starred with Leif Garrett in God's Gun (1976) and Kid Vengeance (1977), both of which were filmed mainly in Israel.

Van Cleef later had a supporting role in John Carpenter's cult film Escape from New York (1981).[13] In 1984, he was cast as a ninja master in the NBC adventure series The Master, but it was canceled after thirteen episodes. In all, Van Cleef is credited with 90 movie roles and 109 television appearances over a 38-year span.

Personal life

Van Cleef was married three times. His first marriage was to Patsy Ruth Kahle, in 1943. They had three children, Alan, Deborah and David, and divorced in 1958.[14] His second marriage was to Joan Marjorie Drane, from 1960 to 1974.[15] His final marriage was to Barbara Havelone in 1976, who survived him.[16]

He lost the last joint of the middle finger of his right hand while building a playhouse for his daughter.[17]

In 1958, a severe car crash nearly cost Van Cleef his life and career. A resulting knee injury made his physicians think that he would never ride a horse again. This injury plagued Van Cleef for the rest of his life and caused him great pain. His recovery was long and difficult and halted his acting for a time. He then began a business in interior decoration with second wife Joan, as well as pursuing his talent for painting, primarily of sea and landscapes.

Despite suffering from heart disease from the late 1970s and having a pacemaker installed in the early 1980s,[18] Van Cleef continued to work in films until his death on December 16, 1989, at age 64.[19] He collapsed in his home in Oxnard, California, from a heart attack.[20] Throat cancer was listed as a secondary cause of death.[21] He was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, Hollywood Hills, California, with an inscription on his grave marker referring to his many acting performances as a villain: "BEST OF THE BAD".[22]



Year Title Role Director Notes
1952 High Noon Jack Colby Fred Zinnemann with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly
Untamed Frontier Dave Chittun Hugo Fregonese with Joseph Cotten and Shelley Winters
Kansas City Confidential Tony Romano Phil Karlson with John Payne and Coleen Gray
1953 The Lawless Breed Dirk Hanley Raoul Walsh with Rock Hudson
The Bandits of Corsica Nerva Ray Nazarro
White Lightning Brutus Allen Edward Bernds
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms Corp. Stone Eugène Lourié
Arena Smitty Richard Fleischer
Vice Squad Pete Monte Arnold Laven with Edward G. Robinson
Jack Slade Bolt Mackay Harold D. Schuster
Tumbleweed Marv Nathan Juran with Audie Murphy
The Nebraskan Private Reno Benton Fred F. Sears
1954 Gypsy Colt Hank Andrew Marton
Rails Into Laramie Ace Winton Jesse Hibbs
Arrow in the Dust Tilotson Henchman Lesley Selander with Sterling Hayden
The Yellow Tomahawk Fire Knife Lesley Selander
Princess of the Nile Hakar Harmon Jones Uncredited bit part
The Desperado The Crayton twins, Paul/Buck Thomas Carr
Dawn at Socorro Earl Ferris George Sherman
1955 Treasure of Ruby Hills Frank Emmett Frank McDonald
Ten Wanted Men Al Drucker H. Bruce Humberstone with Randolph Scott
The Big Combo Fante Joseph H. Lewis with Cornel Wilde
I Cover the Underworld Flash Logan R. G. Springsteen
The Road to Denver Pecos Larry Joseph Kane
The Naked Street Harry Goldish Maxwell Shane with Anthony Quinn and Anne Bancroft; Uncredited
Man Without a Star Uncredited bit part
A Man Alone Clanton Ray Milland with Ray Milland
The Vanishing American Jay Lord Joseph Kane
1956 The Conqueror Chepei Dick Powell with John Wayne and Susan Hayward
Tribute to a Bad Man Fat Jones Robert Wise with James Cagney
It Conquered the World Dr. Tom Anderson Roger Corman with Peter Graves
Pardners Gus Norman Taurog with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin
Accused of Murder Police Sgt. Emmett Lackey Joseph Kane
1957 The Quiet Gun Doug Sadler William F. Claxton
The Badge of Marshal Brennan Shad Donaphin Albert C. Gannaway
China Gate Maj. Cham Samuel Fuller with Nat King Cole
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral Ed Bailey John Sturges with Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster
The Lonely Man Faro Henry Levin with Jack Palance and Anthony Perkins
The Last Stagecoach West Steve Margolies Joseph Kane
Joe Dakota Adam Grant Richard Bartlett
The Tin Star Ed McGaffey Anthony Mann with Henry Fonda and Anthony Perkins
Gun Battle of Monterey Kirby Sidney Franklin Jr.
Carl K. Hittleman
with Sterling Hayden
Raiders of Old California Sgt. Damon Pardee Albert C. Gannaway
1958 Day of the Bad Man Jake Hayes Harry Keller with Fred MacMurray
The Young Lions 1st Sgt. Rickett Edward Dmytryk with Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Dean Martin
The Bravados Alfonso Parral Henry King with Gregory Peck
Guns, Girls, and Gangsters Mike Benett Edward L. Cahn with Mamie Van Doren
Machete Miguel Kurt Neumann
Ride Lonesome Frank Budd Boetticher with Randolph Scott
1961 Posse from Hell Leo Herbert Coleman with Audie Murphy
1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Reese John Ford with James Stewart, John Wayne and Lee Marvin
How the West Was Won River Pirate John Ford
Henry Hathaway
George Marshall
with James Stewart, Carroll Baker, John Wayne and Eli Wallach; Uncredited
1965 For a Few Dollars More Col. Douglas Mortimer Sergio Leone with Clint Eastwood and Gian Maria Volonte
1966 The Big Gundown Jonathan Corbett Sergio Sollima with Tomas Milian
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly "Angel Eyes"/Sentenza; "The Bad" Sergio Leone with Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach
1967 Death Rides a Horse Ryan Giulio Petroni with John Phillip Law
Day of Anger Frank Talby Tonino Valerii with Giuliano Gemma
1968 Beyond the Law Billy Joe Cudlip Giorgio Stegani
Commandos MSgt. Sullivan Armando Crispino
1969 Sabata Sabata Gianfranco Parolini
1970 Barquero Travis Gordon Douglas with Warren Oates
El Condor Jaroo John Guillermin with Jim Brown
1971 Captain Apache Capt. Apache Alexander Singer with Carroll Baker and Stuart Whitman
Return of Sabata Sabata Gianfranco Parolini
Bad Man's River Roy King Eugenio Martín with Gina Lollobrigida and James Mason
1972 The Magnificent Seven Ride Chris Adams George McCowan
The Grand Duel Sheriff Clayton Giancarlo Santi Aka The Big Showdown and Storm Rider
1973 Mean Frank and Crazy Tony Frankie Diomede Michele Lupo with Jean Rochefort
1974 The Stranger and the Gunfighter Dakota Antonio Margheriti Aka Blood Money
1975 Take a Hard Ride Kiefer Antonio Margheriti with Jim Brown
1976 God's Gun Father John / Lewis Gianfranco Parolini with Leif Garrett and Jack Palance
1977 Kid Vengeance McClain Joseph Manduke with Leif Garrett and Jim Brown
Quel pomeriggio maledetto Harry Chapman Mario Siciliano
1978 The Rip-Off Chris Gretchko / Ray Sloan Antonio Margheriti Aka The Squeeze
1980 The Octagon McCarn Eric Karson with Chuck Norris
1981 Escape from New York Bob Hauk John Carpenter with Kurt Russell, Donald Pleasence and Ernest Borgnine
1984 Goma-2 Julot José Antonio de la Loma
Code Name: Wild Geese China Antonio Margheriti with Klaus Kinski and Ernest Borgnine
1985 Jungle Raiders Warren Antonio Margheriti
1986 Armed Response Burt Roth Fred Olen Ray with David Carradine
1987 Der Commander Col. Mazzarini Antonio Margheriti with Donald Pleasence
1989 Speed Zone a.k.a. Cannonball Fever Rock-Skipping Grandfather Jim Drake with John Candy, Brooke Shields and Peter Boyle
1990 Thieves of Fortune Sergio Danielo Christophero Michael MacCarthy final film role, posthumous release


Year Title Role(s) Episode(s) Network(s)
1952 Sky King Mark "Formula for Fear" NBC-TV, ABC-TC
1952 Boston Blackie Lou; Captain Jansen Inside Crime; Deep Six
1952–1953 The Range Rider El Latigo; Utah Joe; Rocky Hatch "Treasure of Santa Dolores"; "Outlaw's Double"; "Greed Rides the Range"
1952–1953 The Lone Ranger Joe Singer/Bull Harper/Henchman Jango "Desperado at Large"; "The Brown Pony"; "Stage to Estacado"
1954–1962 Death Valley Days unknown; Brogger "Snowshoe Thompson"; "The Hat That Won the West"
1955 The Man Behind the Badge Floyd "The Case of the Desperate Moment" CBS
1955 Champion the Wonder Horse Frank "Crossroad Trail" CBS
1957 Trackdown Ben "The Town"
1958 Wagon Train Rufe Beal "The Jesse Cowan Story"
1958 Zorro Antonio Castillo "Welcome to Monterey"
1958 Richard Diamond, Private Detective Ed Murdock "Rodeo"
1959 Mr. Lucky "Dangerous Lady"
1959 Yancy Derringer Ike Milton/Frank James "Outlaw at Liberty"
1959 Wanted: Dead or Alive Jumbo Kane "The Hostage"
1959 The Real McCoys 1st Sentry "Grandpa Fights the Air Force"
1959–1962 The Rifleman Dan Maury; Stinger; Wicks; Johnny Drako "The Deadly Wait"; "The Prodigal"; "The Clarence Bibs Story"; "Death Never Rides Alone" ABC-TV
1960 The Slowest Gun in the West Sam Bass TV movie
1960 77 Sunset Strip Deek "Attic" Warner Bros.
1960–1966 Gunsmoke Rad Meadows; Johnny Hooker; Ike Jeffords "Old Flame"/"The Pariah"/"My Father, My Son"
1960–1963 Laramie Wes Torrey; Dawson; Mac Morgan; Caleb ".45 Calibre"; "Killer Odds"; "Vengeance"; "The Stranger"
1960 Bonanza Appling "The Blood Line"
1961 Maverick Wolf McManus "Red Dog"
1961–1962 Cheyenne Braden; Larry Jackson; Harry "Trouble Street"; "A Man Called Ragen"; "Man Alone"
1961 The Twilight Zone Steinhart "The Grave" CBS-TV
1961 Stagecoach West Lin Hyatt "Never Walk Alone"
1963 The Dakotas Larry Jackson; Slade Tucker "A Man Called Ragan"; "Thunder in Pleasant Valley" ABC-TV
1963 Perry Mason Edward Doyle "The Case of the Golden Oranges"
1962–1963 Have Gun – Will Travel Corbin; Golias "The Treasure"; "Face of a Shadow"
1962–1963 Ripcord Henry Kane; Jack Martin "Thoroughbred"; "The Money Mine"
1964 Rawhide Fred Grant; Deck Sommers "The Enormous Fist"; "Piney" CBS-TV
1965 The Andy Griffith Show purse thief "Banjo-Playing Deputy" CBS-TV
1965 My Mother the Car Nick Fitch "Burned at the Steak"
1965–1966 Branded "The Richest Man in Boot Hill", "Call to Glory" NBC-TV
1966 Laredo Big Mike Kelly "Quarter Past Eleven"
1977 Nowhere to Hide
1979 The Hard Way
1984 The Master John Peter McAllister All episodes; starring role NBC-TV

Lee Van Cleef's characters in the Sergio Leone movies inspired the creation of the characters Elliot Belt of the Lucky Luke comic album The Bounty Hunter,[23] and Cad Bane of the Star Wars franchise.[24]

The band Primus has a song about Lee Van Cleef on their album Green Naugahyde.[25]

The Warcraft universe sports the villain Edwin Van Cleef, who is inspired by Lee Van Cleef.

The Black Library magazine Inferno! featured several short stories, within the Necromunda setting, starring a bounty hunter called Nathan Creed, who was written as a clear homage to Lee Van Cleef, writer Jonathan Green described the character as "Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood, The Man With No Name and John Wayne all rolled into one",[26] illustrations in the magazine clearly showed Creed as physically near identical to Van Cleef.

Phillip Pullman, author of the bestselling trilogy His Dark Materials, stated that the first name of his fictional American explorer, airman, and crack marksman Lee Scoresby was a reference to Van Cleef, with the character's surname being an homage to the famous Arctic explorer William Scoresby.

Van Cleef was also parodied in GLC: The Carnage Continues..., a short British comedy film of the late 1980s that humorously joined British politics with Hollywood action stars. Van Cleef is portrayed by the film's director Peter Richardson, though it rather suggests Van Cleef the personage is unrealistically playing Tony Benn, a British Member of Parliament.

Van Cleef served as visual inspiration for the characters of Revolver Ocelot and Old Snake in the Metal Gear Solid video game series, as well as inspiring the gunslinger personality of the former.

Hungarian musician Tamás Cseh wrote a song about Van Cleef under title Lee van Cleef[27][28]


  1. "PO1 Clarence Leroy Van Cleef, Jr". TogetherWeServed. 2015. Retrieved May 25, 2015.
  2. Rowan, Terry (2013). The American Western A Complete Film Guide. Lulu.com. ISBN 978-1-300-41858-0. Retrieved June 30, 2017.
  3. Hatala, Greg. "Glimpse of History: 'Being born with a pair of beady eyes was the best thing that ever happened to me' – Lee Van Cleef", The Star-Ledger, August 26, 2013. Accessed November 4, 2017. "Looking at this photo of Clarence Leroy Van Cleef Jr. from the 1943 Somerville High School yearbook, it's hard to imagine him acquiring the sobriquet 'ugly.' Yet he was tagged just that 23 years later when he starred with Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach in Sergio Leone's classic western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."
  4. Blazeski, Goran (December 6, 2017). "Lee Van Cleef, the "Bad" in Leone's classic Western, was a decorated sonarman on a WWII minesweeper". The Vintage News. Retrieved May 16, 2018.
  5. Malloy, Mike (1998). Lee Van Cleef: A Biographical, Film and Television Reference. McFarland & Company, Inc. p. 5. ISBN 0-7864-0437-X.
  6. "Actor Lee Van Cleef, Villain in Hundreds of Westerns". Apnews.com. December 26, 1989. Retrieved February 26, 2019.
  7. Kansas City Confidential
  8. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
  9. Chance, Norman (December 22, 2010). Who Was Who on TV. Xlibris Corporation. ISBN 9781456821647.
  10. Boggs, Johnny D. (2011). Jesse James and the movies. McFarland & Co., Publishers. p. 239. ISBN 978-0-7864-8496-6.
  11. The Nickel Pop Gazette
  12. Lee Van Cleef on IMDb
  13. Garner, Jack (May 27, 2015). "Jack's Plan B: 'Escape from New York'". Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. Gannett. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
  14. https://www.jacksonville.com/article/20160227/NEWS/801244088
  15. https://www.newnetherlandinstitute.org/history-and-heritage/dutch_americans/clarence-leroy-lee-van-cleef/
  16. https://www.nytimes.com/1989/12/17/obituaries/lee-van-cleef-actor-dies-at-64-played-villains-in-many-westerns.html
  17. Marshall Trimble (March 31, 2015). "In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Lee Van Cleef (the Bad) is missing part of a finger. What happened to it? Also, did Eli Wallach play the Ugly? I have been told Van Cleef did". True West Magazine. Retrieved May 16, 2018.
  18. "Actor Lee Van Cleef, Villain in Hundreds of Westerns". AP News. Oxford, Calif. December 17, 1989. Retrieved August 19, 2018.
  19. AP (December 17, 1989). "Lee Van Cleef, Actor, Dies at 64; Played Villains in Many Westerns". NY Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
  20. "Western Archivillain Lee Van Cleef Dies". Deseret News. Deseret News Publishing Company. December 17, 1989. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
  21. Magers, Boyd. "Lee Van Cleef". Western Clippings. Retrieved January 18, 2014.
  22. Hughes, Howard (2006). Once Upon A Time in the Italian West: The Filmgoers' Guide to Spaghetti Westerns. I.B. Tauris. p. 158. ISBN 978-0-85773-045-9.
  23. Lombard, Philippe (September 6, 2017). Goscinny-scope: D'Astérix au Viager, tout le cinéma du maître de la BD (in French). Dunod. p. 40. ISBN 9782100771110.
  24. "The Cinema Behind Star Wars: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly". StarWars.com. Lucasfilm Ltd. December 17, 2012. Retrieved June 16, 2018.
  25. Green, Jonathan (April 16, 2011). "Jonathan Green, Author: N is for Nathan Creed". Jonathan Green, Author. Retrieved September 25, 2018.
  26. Lee van Cleef by Tamas Cseh (amazon.com)
  27. Cseh Tamás: Lee van Cleef (YouTube)
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