The Hawklike Guy We Loved To Hate
The Chicago Tribune (December 20th 1989)
By Bob Greene
One of the features that newspapers always run at the end of every year is a list of notable people who have died since the previous Jan1. These lists usually appear with the deaths mentioned in chronological order, beginning with the January deaths. Thus, the death of Lee Van Cleef - who died last Saturday in Oxnard, Calif. - will appear toward the very end of the 1989 lists. If it appears at all, that is; many editors may not consider Van Cleef a "major" celebrity.
Which is a story in itself. Lee Van Cleef, who was 64 when he died, had a long career as a villain in movies - mostly Westerns and cowboy movies. Almost without exception, Van Cleef was cast as a bad guy. And he was very convincing as a bad guy; movie audiences looked at him, and they were scared of him and they hated him and they wanted the hero to kill him.
He was a bad guy in some of the Clint Eastwood "spaghetti Westerns," and he was a bad guy in some low-budget films, but the movie that established him as a bad guy was one of the best movies ever made - "High Noon," the 1952 Western that won the Academy Award for its star, Gary Cooper.
In "High Noon," Cooper was cast as the heroic marshal of a town called Hadleyville. On his wedding day, he learns that Frank Miller, a killer he put in prison, is coming back to town on the noon train. Three members of the Miller gang - including the bad guy played by Lee Van Cleef - are in Hadleyville to wait for Miller. The Gary Cooper character could leave - but he doesn't. He stays to face down the Miller gang. All four of the Miller gang die.
"High Noon" was perhaps the pinnacle of Cooper's career - the movie that established him as the ultimate cinema symbol of decency and honor. In a way, "High Noon" may have been the pinnacle of Lee Van Cleef's career, too. You watch that movie and you see Van Cleef - with his sinister face - and you can't wait for Gary Cooper to put him away. If Van Cleef's assignment was to make movie audiences despise him, he did a wonderful job of it.
And now that he's dead, perhaps it is worth spending a moment or two thinking about why he was chosen for that particular assignment. Certainly his path through life had been conventional enough: He was born in New Jersey, he served in the U.S. Navy, he worked as a farmer, a gas station attendant, a painter and an accountant before going into acting. People who knew him say that he was a pretty nice guy.
But Gary Cooper was cast as the heroic marshal, and his performance in that role still has the power to bring tears to people's eyes. Lee Van Cleef was cast as Jack Colby, one of the fearsome desperadoes in the Miller gang.
Why the casting? In an interview 20 years ago, Van Cleef said he believed it was because of his nose. Lee Van Cleef's nose was often described as a "predator's nose," and his face was often described as "malevolent" and "wicked" and "hawklike."
"I didn't speak a word in 'High Noon'," Van Cleef said in the interview - a fact that may be surprising to people who think they recall every detail of the movie. His portrayal of the villainous Jack Colby was so memorable that it is hard to conceive that he did it without speaking.
Van Cleef said that when "High Noon" was being cast he was offered a more glamorous role in the movie - "providing I would have my nose fixed." Van Cleef declined to have the nose surgery, and thus was relegated to the dastardly Miller gang. "Now, people remember this beak," he said.
And that was the determining factor in the course of his career, really. Lee Van Cleef's face - a face with that oft-described "predator's nose" - made him the ideal bad guy. Van Cleef was a fine actor; Gary Cooper was a fine actor. It's senseless to compare the acting abilities of the two men, but it's fair to point out that Lee Van Cleef received the roles he did because of what his face looked like. Gary Cooper? Well, Gary Cooper looked like Gary Cooper.
The great majority of us aren't movie stars, but the Gary Cooper-Lee Van Cleef rule often applies nevertheless. If your face has a certain look, people can imagine you as the heroic marshal. If your face has a different look, people can see you only as one of the henchmen in the Miller gang. Even if you never say a word. Especially if you never say a word.