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