LOS ANGELES (AP) — After a 12-year absence, Lee Van Cleef, the lean, hard-eyed Old West gunsel of "High Noon" and later Clint Eastwood's "For a Few Dollars More," is returning to television.
Irony attends his return. He just finished playing a modern hit man in a movie filmed in Spain. Now, he'll play a modern U.S. marshal guarding an ex-hit man who is testifying against a syndicate boss.
Van Cleef's show, airing Sunday at 9:30 p.m. on NBC, is a series pilot called "No Where To Hide" He plays Ike Scanlan, protector of an informant to whom the mob wishes to render a .357 Magnum salute.
It's a strange role for the man who, because of some 60 movies and 150 TV shows, is well-known as one of acting's most sinister villains. It's even stranger to find the villain a funny, easy-going character.
Interviewed at his tree-lined home in suburban Tarzana, he popped open a can of beer for his visitor, lit a cigarette and then denied that Sunday's show is the first time he's represented the forces of decency.
"Naw, not really," chortled the 51- year-old native of Somerville, N.J., who started acting in the early 1950s' in the road company of "Mister Roberts," which led to his big film break in "High Noon."
"Back in the Fifties I did a couple of good guys," he insisted. After thinking hard, he cited a "Medic" episode where he played a doctor.
But Van Cleef, who at home does such unvillainous things as paint, play guitar and sing — surprisingly well — in the Johnny Cash manner, admits his Bad Guy image does cause him woe at times.
When asked if, while taking the waters in a bar ...
"Do guys come up and say, 'Are you as .tough as you play in the movies?" he said, posing the question in a low, tough-guy voice. He sighed and looked at his knuckles. "I'm counting a couple busted hands out of that."
Then the actor, who at 6 feet 2 and 200 pounds appears fit enough to hunt bears with a toothpick, started laughing. "The last one I had was in a bar down on Sunset Boulevard and a Texan about 6 feet 5 was pulin' that jazz. I knew what was happening, so I accidentally knocked my change off the bar. Then I went down to pick it up, came up and 'Boom!' Almost tore hishead off. So they carried him out theback and I walked out the front, adios."
But Van Cleef, a mild-mannered man with a hipster's sense of humor, emphasized he tries to avoid such situations, even though they're part of the hazards of playing the baddie so often in films.
He also said he specifically took the part of Scanlan, the lawman, in Sunday's show "as a change from being the bad guy." And now he even wants to, give situation comedy a shot.
Van Cleef, whose greatest fame came from the roles he played in a series of spaghetti Western made in Italy and Spain was asked why he's stayed out of television for so long.
"Oh, I was having a lot more fun in Europe," said the veteran movie gunfighter. He smiled when he said it, pardner.