Part 2 below. The 3rd and final part will be on the next post.
"What led you to making pictures over there?"
"Money! Mun-nee!" he enunciated. "I'll admit it to you. I was broke. I couldn't pay my phone bill, and it wasn't all that big. They offered me more money than I ever made on any picture, and that's what started it. It was Sergio Leone who came over and said, I want you to do a thing. So I did it. It was the first one I did with Clint Eastwood, For a Few Dollars More. I left April the l2th,1965; then exactly one year later I left on the second one, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. That went back- ' to-back with The Big Gundown where I starred on my own, instead of with Clint, and .:. it's been goin' like that ever since. Goin' to the airport gettin' on a plane, jumpin' one, two, six or twelve hours-maybe twenty hours-to one place or the other. I kept an apartment in Rome for a while at one point when those pictures were comin' so fast and furious. But I live here right now, basically, and I hope to stay that way."
"Are you still making films in Europe, though?"
"I'm making films wherever they're being made. Whether it's here, Israel; the Canaries, Spain, Italy, Yugoslavia-it doesn't make a damn bit of difference where they're made. It's an international business, everybody will eventually see what's done, and that's what the point is. It's not just makin' it in California. Bullshit! You gotta make 'em where they're bein' made. Unfortunately," he said with concern, "there's not enough being done here. We've got to somehow or another springboard the situation in this country. In the foreign countries, they get help. The government helps them. The government isn't helping anything here, in that regard. I think if they followed the examples of Italy or Spain, with tax rebates or whatever ... then there would be more money to make a picture and start another, and you can keep goin' from there. That's why the film industry in Europe is so much better than it is here."
"In a sense," I remarked, "Sergio Leone gave your career a second start, didn't he?"
"Well, you can't actually say it was a renewal in the business," he corrected. "It was just, thank God, I hung on and didn't go into something else, try to get a job diggin' ditches. This business, my friend, is ups and downs all the way for everybody. You don't know you're going to do anything until you're there with script in hand, in wardrobe, makeup, and you're in frnnt of the camera and it's rollin'. Then you know you've got the job. And it's climbin' that ladder slowly, drop a couple of rungs and gain three. The best thing somebody can do is make the right kind of investments along the way when you do have it, so that you've got something to fall back on, and make sure you know how to do something else. I'm sure most actors do. I'd hate to see Charlie Bronson go back to the coal mines, because he's too damn good where he is. I don't want to go back to the farms, either. I wasn't that good a farmer. If I had to do something else-which I don't think I will-I'd go into another art form, or some other area within the business. But when Leone invited me over to Europe the first time, that was more money than I'd made on any show here. Everything's relative; there's a fourteen year difference, 1951 to 1965, but ... hell, my per diem, just the living expenses they gave me was as much as I made on my very first picture, the whole salary."
"That name `Angel Eyes' in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; was that tailor-made specifically for you?" I asked.
"If it was in the script, I didn't see it," Van Cleef recalled, "and I'm usually pretty careful about giving scripts a close reading. I think Clint came out with it one day. It just kind of sprung out, and it was used ever since. I made no complaints about it. They've referred to me as that quite often in publicity since that time. I thought it was pretty good."
"Absolutely," I agreed. "How long did it take to make that film, by the way? Wasn't your typical Italian Western a rather fast piece of work?"
"Well, yes, in comparison to, say, Cleopatra or Brando's Mutiny on the Bounty, or some of those others which took many months, perhaps even over a year, the European jobs generally run anywhere from eight weeks to twelve. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly only took thirteen weeks. But that's just shooting time," he stressed. "That's not preparation time; and all the post-production, which can take any length of time, six months or more to get all the little fine details of sound and editing in there they want. And Leone did all his own stuff in those days."
"Then they couldn't be called `quickies'?"
"No. I've done pictures over here back in the fifties-my God, I'm not gonna tell you the titles of the darn things because I don't want to remember 'em. But in two or three weeks time we did two feature length pictures and parts of three different television shows. That was the fastest bunch of scramblin' that I've ever been on. In the old days, also, in the half-hour tv shows we'd do threea week, jumpin' from one script to another. All within one day I would have changed wardrobe maybe fourteen or fifteen times and bounced back and forth from one script to another many, many times within that period. With the hour shows, we'd get one done in five or six days. Sometimes they'll give a week and a half to that, now."
"What were your working conditions there, as far as language went. Did everyone speak English?"
"No. Not then. Everybody speaks English now, for the most part. For your somewhat better films, your major actors do speak English now, mostly; unless they're in there doin' somebody a favor and won't speak anything but their own tongue, which I think they're making a mistake , there. And in some of your cheapies now, they won't. But in the old days-well, I say the old days, it was fourteen, fifteen years ago and ` before that-everybody would be speaking in their own tongue. Leone couldn't speak English to begin with. He speaks it very well now, but in the first picture he could hardly speak it at all, and we had an interpreter on both of the pictures I did for him. There was one scene in For a Few Dollars More that I was in where there were five languages spoken: Greek, Italian, German, Spanish, and a Cockney Englishman that I couldn't understand any better than I could understand the Greek! But I got along in it, because I knew what everybody was supposed to be saying in English by my script. So, when they'd stop speakin', then I would say something. Also, I began to pick up some of the Italian and Spanish which was prevalent over there."
"Did any of your fellow actors ever express or hint at any resentments towards you, as an American on a European set; as if to suggest you had taken the job away from a more deserving local" I asked.
"No, I never felt it," Van Cleef said. "I think that the people in the know, they understand that as well as an art, it's an international business and a money game. Because it's international, you have people with different nationalities in damn near every film today. Even American ' producers will go over to Europe to get money to pre-sell a picture. As a consequence, to get this money, they may sometimes have to take actors and technicians from the countries they're negotiating with-or I'm sure : in a lot of cases, they want to take them, because there's a lot of fine people abroad. So, if you're going to make a film anywhere, and you're going to want money from Italy, money from Spain, from Mexico, from Canada, then they will own a film for their particular areas, or however you negotiate it-there's no two alike-and you've got people from all over the world in one fllm.
"But we got along fine. No problem at all. You'd be surprised how many over there do speak English now, cause the actors have had to learn. It wasn't that way before. I'd usually pal around with somebody who commanded both English as well as the tongues of anybody there around me. The stunt man I had over there for quite some time spoke English very well, and both Spanish and Italian. My wife speaks a little bit of Spanish, too, and I speak enough Italian now to make myself understood.
"With the actors, it was no problem whatsoever. Somebody'd be around who could interpret if the goin' got a little bit thick. I've never had any problem in Europe or any place else I've been, except perhaps with producers; once in a while, a little bit of a tangle with a director. But if he could speak English well, and I could make my point clear enough and he agreed with it, then he'd do it my way. Otherwise I'd go ahead and do the best I could with it his way, unless I was totally against it. Then I just refused to do it, and that only happened once or twice. I don't like to infringe on another guy's territory unless it directly involves me, but there was one show over there, one of the early ones after I finished with Leone, and I directed myself all the way through the damn thing. I just couldn't take the director's directions. On occasion I even had to correct him on riglzt and left, and where to set lights."
"On the other side of the coin," I asked, "were you ever treated with a certain deference, stemming from the fact that compared with your co-stars, your career has made you a bonafide veteran of the cowboy genre?"
"Well, sometimes I'd get the feeling they looked up at it, and sometimes I'd get the feeling they were wonderin' when I was goin' to fall off my horse, if ever. You know, you get that negative feeling every once in a while, even though there's no reason for it, that they're just waiting for you to make a mistake. Sounds like I walk around with a lot of confidence, I guess." Van Cleef laughed self-consciously. "But I haven't fallen flat yet. And I most often got the feeling that I was respected, and I got nothing hut that. What went on behind my back, I'm not all that certain. But up in the foreground, I got all the respect that any one man can handle."
"Some of those pictures you made over there have been out long enough to make it to television. Do you ever watch yourself in them, or in any of the old reruns or the older pictures-excepting Posse from Hell, of course?"
"Liberty Valance was on just the other night here. The only reason I didn't see it again is I've seen it so many times already. I'll watch a picture if I liked it, on an overall basis-whiclz is what I aim at. I don't aim at pointin' myself up. I aim at a good picture overall, which I think Liberty Valance was. When it comes to film work-at least the ones that I'm in-whether I'm playin' the heavy or the lead, I don't give a damn. I just want the picture to be direct, I want the people to understand it, and I want 'em to go home satisfied."
"I get the impression from a fairly crowded list of pictures covering the last ten years," I said, "that you belong among those performers who like to call themselves `working actors.' That is, sometimes you will accept an assignment for the sake of staying in the game, keeping the creative juices flowing."
"Well, yeah, but I don't do it at the risk of dropping quality," Van Cleef retorted. "That's why I stick to motion pictures. If I do end up doing television, it would be because the script is damn good and there is room for good characterization in the thing for as long as the program will go. I pick and choose. I don't work for the sake of working. I don't believe in that. I've got otherthings I do to keep my juices flowing-and I'm not talkin' about beer and alcohol! My home takes a lot of creativity. I've got juices flowin' all over the place here, between the painting and woodworking and the rest. I paint. I write scripts and songs. I sing and play music. My wife Barbara is very musical. She's a concert pianist. She can solo, accompany; even play clubs, because she not only does the classical, but she can go into darn near any area of music on the piano. I've picked up on music along the way in my career, but I concentrated on it pretty hard in school, too; played trombone and sang. As a little child I played piano. Now I just fool around with a guitar to aid me in creating songs. I sketch a lot. I paint in oils and acrylics; landscapes, primarily seascapes .. and figure. Female form." He owned cheerily, "I'm still healthy."
"Obviously you have plenty to keep you occupied within the confines of your home," I said. "But when you do venture out, can you move about freely in public, here or abroad? Your rather unique features, after all, have been seen far and wide, and had impact over a long career both as the rugged villain and sturdy hero."
"I don't like to get out too much," he said. "I like going out to supper, or something like that; but I don't like to get out into crowds, like going to Disneyland or Knott's Berry Farm, or such places. On a street in Rome, I don't seem to worry about it too much. The only thing that bothers me over there is the paparazzi. They bug the hell out of me."
"Did your presence in a restaurant or bar ever spark a hostile reaction from somebody out to prove his manhood?" I asked.
"Ho, ho, ho-o-o-o! You better know it! It's happened more here than in Europe, but it has happened there. Not in Italy. Only once in Spain, once in the Canaries; that was it. The rest of it's been in California, but not really all that much, and more often in bars than restaurants.'
"How do you handle somebody who's forcing that screen machismo on the real you, in the middle of a drink or dinner?" I inquired.
"Try to talk out of it," he said. "If you can't talk out of it-then you back it up."
"You mean, quietly leave?"
Van Cleef's voice leveled out. "Bill, I've never started a brawl. You try to quietly leave, but if it doesn't happen, then ... you know what you've gotta do."
"You've had to do it."
"Yes," he declared. "Yes. That doesn't mean that I'm proud of it. But I've had to do it."
I backtracked. "You said before that you wanted your films to be direct, and you wanted people to understand them, and to go home sati
"Yeah, I want 'em to go home satisfied that they've seen somebody do the best job they can. That's not just me. That's anybody I'm in the picture with. And I want 'em to go home entertained. In other words, I don't like disappointments, you know, walkin' out of the theater that way. I don't go back quite as soon."
"But surely you recognize there are other kinds of satisfaction outside of happy endings," I argued. "Wouldn't you be willing to go out on a limb in a picture, do something a little bit elliptical, something that isn't straight line adventure, with all the traditional factors involved?"
"Well, yeah, certainly," Van Cleef replied. "Naturally, it would depend on the script. There again, I'm after good material. Maybe I said it in a way that could be misunderstood, but when I say 'direct,' I mean simple and to the point, without too many complications within a character, so that you don't know where the character is ... or where he `comes from,' I think is the modern way of saying it. There's gotta be a solution to a thing. I've seen too many free-form type endings where there's absolutely no solution to it at all! There was one on television here the other night about a car theft ring. It had some pretty fair chases in it and all that sort of thing, but after all the devastation, the guy gets away scot free at the end. The bad guy got away with it and rode out of the picture with his girl or something ... or at least with the car. Maybe the car represented his girl, I don't know. We find things like that hidden in some of these stories, too."