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Formerly well-known American actor Clarence Leroy Van Cleef Jr. was best known for his antagonistic parts in movies like “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” and “For a Few Dollars More.” He played several notable parts of Western arch-villains for decades thanks to his characteristics, which included steely eyes and a hawk-like nose combined with his skill as an actor. Over the course of more than 38 years, he appeared in 90 films and 109 television shows as both a hero and an anti-hero. Before making his acting debut in the 1950 play “Mister Roberts,” he worked a few odd jobs and served for a while in the US Navy during World War II. Before getting his big break in the 1965 spaghetti Western film “For a Few Dollars More,” directed by Sergio Leone, he made his film debut with “High Noon” and spent the next decade playing small evil roles. He attracted notice and his career turned around as a result of the movie. He became well-known for his role as “The Bad” in the epic spaghetti western “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” which was directed by Sergio Leone. His popularity increased as a result of a variety of heroic and villainous characters in action movies including “Take a Hard Ride,” “Sabata,” and “El Condor.”

Table of Contents

Early Childhood & Life

Lee Van Cleef was born on January 9, 1925, to parents Clarence LeRoy Van Cleef and Marion Van Fleet (née Levinia), in Somerville, New Jersey, United States. He had some Dutch ancestry.
He graduated from Somerville High School at the age of 17, a little before the end of his senior year, in order to join the US Navy (USN) in September 1942.

After joining the USN, Cleef attended the Naval Fleet Sound School to finish his basic and other training before being assigned to a submarine chaser. He worked there for a while before joining the USS Incredible, an Admirable-class minesweeper, as a sonarman.

After that, he traveled with a minesweeper and carried out a number of military tasks before arriving back in Palermo, Sicily, on February 20, 1945.
When Cleef received his mine sweeper patch and held the rank of Sonarman First Class (S01), he was released from his obligations in March 1946.

He was awarded the Good Conduct Medal, the Bronze Star, and was eligible for the World War II Victory Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal as a result of his military service. He also received the Good Conduct Medal and the Bronze Star.

Lee Cleef’s Career

After serving in the USN, Cleef—who also briefly worked as an accountant—became involved in the entertainment sector. In Clinton, New Jersey, he got associated with the “Little Theater Group,” performing for them in plays like “Our Town” and “Heaven Can Wait” while also going on auditions for other parts.

At this point, he caught the attention of several visiting talent scouts, one of whom introduced him to Maynard Morris, a talent agent with the MCA agency, in New York City. Morris recommended Cleef for an audition at the Alvin Theater, where he was cast in the play “Mister Roberts.” He continued to perform in the play’s original production while touring the country in many different places.

He was discovered performing on stage in a “Mister Roberts” play in Los Angeles, and Stanley Kramer wanted to cast him as Deputy Harvey Pell in the American Western movie “High Noon.” Cleef received his screen debut in the 1952 movie, Jack Colby, a non-speaking role, after refusing to have his “distinctive nose” changed as Kramer requested.

His eyes were heterochromatic, with green and a blue ones. But for the following 13 years or so, his ominous features—a hook nose, steely eyes, pointed cheeks, and chin—typecast him in small-time villain roles in movies of many genres.

Kansas City Confidential, a 1952 noir crime movie, The Conqueror, a 1956 CinemaScope epic, The Tin Star, a 1957 western, and The Young Lions, a 1958 CinemaScope military drama are a few of these movies.
The Adventures of Kit Carson (1951–1955, 6 episodes), Sky King (1952, 1 episode), and The Range Rider (1952–1953, 3 episodes), among others, were some of his early television productions.

He appeared in a lot of other TV shows over the years. These include naming a few, “Cheyenne” (1961–1962), “Death Valley Days” (1954–1962, 2 episodes), “The Rifleman” (1959–1962, 4 episodes), and “Laramie” (1960–1963, 4 episodes).

The Master, an action-adventure TV series with a ninja theme that aired on NBC from January 20, 1984, to August 31, was Cleef’s most noteworthy appearance on television. He played the lead role of John Peter McAllister in that show.

His big break came when Col. Douglas Mortimer, one of the key characters in the spaghetti Western movie “For a Few Dollars More,” offered to him by Italian director, producer, and screenwriter Sergio Leone, who is credited with inventing the “Spaghetti Western” subgenre. The 1965 film, which was first seen, was a huge commercial success.

Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef co-starred in “For a Few Dollars More.” When he was trying to continue his already fading career, the role came to him at a crucial time. It significantly boosted his career, helped him gain notoriety and reputation as a talented actor, and paved the way for a number of subsequent important roles.

His second picture with Leone, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” an epic spaghetti western released in 1966, was even more successful and helped raise his notoriety to new heights. He portrayed ‘Angel Eyes: The Bad,’ a cold-blooded, callous, and psychopathic mercenary, in the movie, which made a staggering $25.1 million at the box office on a $1.2 million budget.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and For a Few Dollars More cemented Cleef’s reputation as a major star of spaghetti westerns. He began landing a number of significant and pivotal roles in many movies, playing both heroes and villains.

He played the lead character Jonathan Corbett in his debut movie, The Big Gundown (1966), which came after “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” He also played the lead in the 1967 films “Day of Anger,” “Death Rides a Horse,” and “The Grand Duel” (1972).

Cleef played the title character in both the 1971 sequel, “Return of Sabata,” and the 1969 Italian spaghetti western “Sabata,” both of which were directed by Gianfranco Parolini.

His other notable works include, among others, the 1981 dystopian science-fiction action film “Escape from New York,” the 1975 DeLuxe Color Italian-American spaghetti western film “Take a Hard Ride,” the 1976 Italian-Israeli spaghetti western film “God’s Gun,” and others.

Personal Legacy & Life

From 1943 to 1960, he was married to Patsy Ruth, his high school sweetheart, and they had three children together: David, Alan, and Deborah.
On April 9, 1960, he wed Joan Marjorie Drane; however, the union ended in divorce in 1974. Denise was their adopted daughter.

Meanwhile, he was involved in a serious car accident in 1958 that nearly claimed his life. After that, he was forced to take a break from performing, and it was during this time that he and his second wife, Joan, decided to start an interior design company.
He tied the knot with Barbara Havelone on July 13, 1976.

Cleef passed away on December 16, 1989, and was interred in Hollywood Hills, California’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery. This legendary cinematic villain’s tombstone is inscribed with the phrase “BEST OF THE BAD.”

Estimated Net Worth

An American actor named Lee Van Cleef had a $2 million fortune. In January 1925, Lee Van Cleef was born in Somerville, New Jersey, and he died in December 1989. Before he began acting in spaghetti westerns, he was well recognized for his evil features, which characterized him as a villain.