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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Obituary - Variety

Lee Van Cleef, character actor/star, dead at 64
By LAWRENCE COHN

Hollywood - Lee Van Cleef, 64, character actor who made an indelible impression as a tough villain in numerous Westerns and gangster films before becoming an international star in Italian Westerns in the 1960s, died Dec. 14 in Oxnard, Calif. of an apparent heart attack.

Born Jan. 9, 1925 in Somerville, N.J. of Dutch ancestry, he worked at odd jobs following service in the navy during World War II. After appearing in amateur stage productions in New Jersey of ''Our Town'' and ''Heaven Can Wait", he landed a role in the road company of ''Mr. Roberts'' in 1951.

Stanley Kramer saw him in the play and cast Van Cleef in his film production 'High Noon," directed by Fred Zinnemann. Van Cleef played a small but attention-getting role as one of the four gunslingers catching a train to have a showdown with sheriff Gary Cooper in the 1952 classic, which set the course the the young actor's screen career as a villain.

Yet is was another 1952 film, Phil Karlson's excellent gangster picture ''Kansas City Confidential,'' that eventually led to Van Cleef's belated breakthrough over a decade later. He played one of a trio of ruthless henchmen (opposite Neville Brand and Jack Elam) in the John Payne-starrer that greatly impressed a young Italian assistant director. Sergio Leone.

Apart from American Westerns, "Kansas City'' had the greatest influence in the style and structure of Leone's breakthrough Italian Westerns in the mid-'60s and he cast Van Cleef in two of them opposite Clint Eastwood, ''For A Few Dollars More'' and ''The Good, The Bad And The Ugly.''
It was a long trek until stardom, however, as he played supporting roles in over 40 feature films in just five years after his "High Noon" debut.

Roger Corman cast Van Cleef in his first leading role in 1956 in the well-remembered sci-fi picture '"It Conquered The World'' in which he had a chance to play a misguided good guy for a change, duped by a monster from Venus.
Van Cleef immediately returned to supporting roles, usually as a heavy, in such features as the Martin & Lewis comedy '"Pardners," Dick Powell's ill-fated John Wayne costumer "'I'he Conqueror," Robert Wise's James Cagney Western ''Tribute To A Bad Man," and John Sturges' classic "Gunfight At The O.K. Corral.''
Moving into the '60's, Van Cleef had roles in important Westerns including Henry King's "The Bravados," the Cinerama epic "How The West Was Won,'' Bud Boetticher's "Ride Lonesome" and John Ford's watershed pic ''The Man Who Shot Liberry Valance.''

As the big-screen action film went into decline he found employment in TV, guestarring on shows ranging from Westerns to 'The Twilight Zone '' After a 3 year absence from theatrical films his breakthrough came in 1965 when Sergio Leone cast him opposite another refugee from tv, Clint Eastwood in ''For A Few Dollars More," the followup to Leone's ''A Fistful Of Dollars.''

In 1966 he encored far Leone as the sadistic villain of "The Good,The Bad, And The Ugly," opposite Eastwood and Eli Wallach. The two Leone films made him an international star and upon their release by United Artists in American in 1967, he became a star on his home turf as well.

Since Eastwood quickly returned to Hollywood following his Italian success Van Cleef was in great demand to topline ItalianWesterns. Sergio Sollima's ''The Big Gundown'' was a weil-received political Western, followed by more routine efforts ''Day Of Anger,'' "Death Rides A Horse,'' ''Beyond The Law" and Frank Kramer's stylish ''Sabata."

Back home he was a good guy Western hero in "Barquero'' and "El Condor,'' followed by a return to European-lensed Westerns including Alexandcr Singer's ''Captain Apache," Eugenio Martin's ''Bad Man's River" and Kramer's sequel ''The Return Of Sabata."

Ironically, in 1972 Van Cleef took over Yul Brynner's leading role in the American Western "The Magnificent Seven Ride!" following Brynner's filling in for Kramer in Van Cleef's role in the second Sabata film, "Adios, Sabata'' (Van Cleef starred in No. 1 and 3 of the Sabata features). He returned to Europe for "The Grand Duel "

Back home he starred as a modern-day U.S. marshal protecting gangster Tony Musante in Jack Starrett's telefilm ''Nowhere To Hide'' and then returned to Europe for the actioners ''The Perfect Killer" and "The Squeeze," last named directed by Antonio Margheriti and costarring Karen Black. In 1979 he starred in the British tv movie "The Hard Way."

In 1980 he moved back toward the mainstream with character roles supporting Chuck Norris in "The Octagon" and Kurt Russell in John Carpenter's ''Escape From New York". Heart disease temporarily sidelined his career (he had a pacemaker installed).

He returned in 1983 to star in the Short-lived martial arts tv series "The Master,'' followed by lowercase feature films ''The Killing Machine," ''Codename Wildgeese," ''Captain Yankee,'' ''Armed Response,'' ''The Commander'' and ''May The Best Man Win." His final film appearance was in the 1989 "Speed Zone."

Survived by his wife, Barbara.

Variety, December 20, 1989

1 comment:

  1. Yes that looks like the Variety obit I bought and saved form Dec 1989. I thought his agent commented on this obit but it must have been another. His agent said something to the effect: "He had a history of heart trouble. And if he had returned from Europe when Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson did he would have been a much bigger star here. But he enjoyed working abroad. And he had just finished doing a TV commerical".

    After seeing Lee at his bar, playing on his pool table and in his swimming pool, I can see that I was wrong when I use to think it would have been better for Lee to have stayed in the U. S. and worked here after, say, Day of Anger. Those European films sometimes were three-four years coming out here (Commandos & Beyond the Law were 7-8 years) and most never got a decent release in the states including one of his best, Mean Frank and Crazy Tony. Also due to dubbing and edits and occasional less that stellar directing and scripts, some of the European films are uneven and could have played better if made in America. I'm sure most played fine in Italy and Spain. Being a huge LVC fan, I yearned for him to work here even if it meant supporting roles again and lots of TV work. I would be seeing him quicker and in roles shot in English with other English speaking actors. That would have been more exciting for me even if the roles were somewhat smaller or co-starring roles. Similar to what he did in The Octagon and Escape From New York. But the MONEY wouldn't have been there most likely.

    Lee clearly enjoyed his time at home and was happy to make 100,000 plus per picture after years of low pay for dozens of different roles each year. After 1972 Lee often only made one picture a year so there was many months between jobs and lots of time to enjoy his beautiful home and quality time with his lovely wife.

    If I were Lee, now that I think about it, I would have done it his way too! Lee Van Cleef was a big star for many years in Italy, Spain and rather noted across Europe. And was known around the world as a fine actor with looks and style on the screen that made him unique and memorable. Similar to stars such as Humphrey Bogart and Vincent Price.

    I once ask his son Alan Van Cleef on the web board what would his dad be doing IF he were still alive. He said he would still be working but as he got into his late 60's & 70's, it would have been more "character" roles and probably a return to TV work. So if he had lived, he would have come a little bit full circle. Judging from the TV commercials he did and the size roles he had in his last films, he was kinda heading in that direction when he left us.

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