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Lee Van Cleef (January 9, 1925-December 16, 1989) was an American film actor who appeared mostly in Western and action pictures. His sharp features and piercing eyes led to his being cast as a villain in scores of films such as High Noon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Good The Bad and the Ugly.
Early lifeVan Cleef was born Clarence LeRoy Van Cleef, Jr. in Somerville, New Jersey, the son of Marion Levinia (née Van Fleet) and Clarence LeRoy Van Cleef, Sr. Both of his parents were of partial Dutch ancestry. Van Cleef served in the United States Navy aboard minesweepers and subchasers during World War II and became an actor after a brief career as an accountant.
CareerHis first acting experiences were on stage, including a small role in the original Broadway production of Mister Roberts. His first film was the classic Western High Noon, in which he played a villain. He also had a bit part as the sharpshooter in the climax of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms around the same time. In 1956 he co-starred with Peter Graves in the B-grade science fiction movie It Conquered the World.
In addition to Westerns and the science fiction films, three of his early major roles were in noir films, Kansas City Confidential of 1952, Vice Squad of 1953, and The Big Combo of 1955. All have attained status as classic noir films of the 1950s and Van Cleef's roles, though as secondary characters and villains, were memorable.
Van Cleef appeared six times between 1951 and 1955 as Burt Tanner on the children's western The Adventures of Kit Carson, starring Bill Williams. In 1954, he appeared as Jesse James in the Jim Davis syndicated series Stories of the Century. He played different minor characters on four episodes of ABC's The Rifleman between 1959 and 1962 and twice on ABC's Tombstone Territory. He appeared with Chuck Connors and Pippa Scott in the 1960 episode "Trial by Fear" of CBS's The DuPont Show with June Allyson.
He guest starred on the NBC western series 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 series 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.
In 1958, Van Cleef was involved in a serious car accident and was forced temporarily to retire from acting. It took his career some time to recover from this blow and in contrast to his earlier major roles, he for some years had only occasional small parts. He played one of Lee Marvin's villainous henchmen in the 1962 John Ford classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, with James Stewart and John Wayne. He also had a small, uncredited role as one of the river pirates in 1962's How the West Was Won.
Between 1962 and 1965 Van Cleef worked as a painter, after which his career took a new turn when he appeared in numerous Spaghetti Westerns. This career revival began when Sergio Leone wanted to cast Van Cleef, whose career was still in the doldrums that began with his car accident, against type as one of the two protagonists, alongside Clint Eastwood, in Leone's second Western, For a Few Dollars More. Leone then chose Van Cleef to appear with Clint Eastwood again, this time as the primary villain in the classic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. With his roles in Leone's films, Van Cleef became a major star of Spaghetti Westerns, playing central roles in films such as Death Rides a Horse, Day of Anger, The Big Gundown and The Sabata Trilogy. Van Cleef also had a supporting role in John Carpenter's cult hit Escape from New York. In 1984, Van Cleef was cast as a ninja master in the NBC adventure series, The Master, but it was canceled after 13 episodes. He also appeared as a villainous swindler in the Bonanza episode, "The Bloodline" (December 31, 1960), along with 90 movie roles and 109 other television appearances over a 38-year span.
In the early 1980s, Van Cleef appeared in a very popular series of commercials for Midas, in which he played up his gunfighter persona, playing opposite many character actors of the time, including Jack Palance.
DeathHe died from a heart attack in Oxnard, California and was interred in Forest Lawn - Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles. His gravestone reads: Lee Van Cleef January 9, 1925 - December 16, 1989 'Best of the Bad' Love and Light.
In popular cultureIn an interview, Hideo Kojima has stated that he modeled the appearance of Revolver Ocelot (a character who specializes in the usage of the Single Action Army revolver) and the old appearance of Solid Snake in the Metal Gear series after Lee Van Cleef, as a tribute to his love of western movies as a child.
The character Cad Bane from the Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008 TV series) is based on Lee's performance in 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly'.
Several reggae artists have mentioned him in their songs, including Rupie Edwards in "The Revenge Of Clint Eastwood" and "Pop Hi!" (Revenge 2), Clancy Eccles in "Lee Van Cleef", Lee Perry on Clint Eastwood. King Stitt recorded many songs under the pseudonym "Lee Van Cleef" (sometimes with the alternate spelling "Von Cliff").
Hungarian bard Cseh Tamas entitled a song "Lee Van Cleef".
Phoenix, Arizona alt-metal band Beats the Hell Out of Me entitled a song "G-Nite Lee Van Cleef" on their 1995 album Rolling Thunder Music on Metal Blade Records. The title character in the Lucky Luke comic by Morris Chasseur de primes ("The Bounty Hunter") is modeled on Lee Van Cleef. The band Primus has a song titled "Lee Van Cleef" on their album Green Naugahyde. In Thomas Pynchon's novel Inherent Vice the main character, Doc Sportello, expresses approval of Lee Van Cleef, comparing him to Clint Eastwood whom he always thinks of as Rowdy Yates.
Kurt Russell has said that Van Cleef's presence in Escape from New York inspired him to talk like Clint Eastwood in the film.
The band Primus released a song titled "Lee Van Cleef" on its 2011 album, Green Naugahyde, about a man lamenting how his friends like watching Sergio Leone's movies for Clint Eastwood instead of Van Cleef.