The Pittsburgh Press, Friday, July 24, 1970
Bad Guy Lee Van Cleef Now Riding Higher Than Ever
By REBECCA MOREHOUSE
NEW YORK--Lee Van Cleef was close to broke five years ago, after 13 years as a bad, bad movie badman. Today, he is serenely solvent and increasingly popular here and abroad: “I’m in the top five actors in Italy and in the top ten throughout Europe.”
Booted into Western villainy by “High Noon,” Van Cleef had played 350 gunslinger roles in movies and television, none as the star he now is, when Italian director Sergio Leone galloped to his rescue with Van Cleef more than a fistful of dollars.
“Leone came to Los Angeles and we had a meeting,” he said. “Late the next night -- April 10, 1965 -- we signed a contract that was 30 per cent higher than anything I’d made before. Then his production manager opened an attache case containing thousand of greenbacks, I shelled out 10 per cent to my agent and went home.
“I hadn’t told my wife Joan about the conference. I just walked in and threw her the envelope and the rubber band broke and there were greenbacks all over the room. She was between laughing and crying. It took her four times to count it.
For all the bullets and beatings he’s taken, Van Cleef is a rock of a man with a fist like a stone, 6-2, dark hair thin and graying, pleasant in manner. Of Dutch ancestry, he was born 45 years ago in Somerville, N. J. -- “My mother still lives there.”
His new movie, National General’s “El Condor,” takes him again to the American West. But like his other recent pictures (“For a Few Dollars More,” “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” “The Big Gundown”), it was shot in Rome and on location in Spain. He co-stars with Jim Brown.
“The man I play in ‘El Condor’ is a change for me. He’s a wildcat but there’s a lot of comedy. I’ve done leading men in six of the eight European pictures I’ve made -- the character lead, not the pretty face. It’s getting so they don’t want a pretty face, they like ’em rough looking.”
Lee Van Cleef’s own life has been as full of dramatic surprises as the scenarios he enlivens.
He dropped out of high school to join the Navy, after he go out worked on Doris Duke’s estate: “I took care of her prize cattle, pitched hay, things like that. But you can’t keep a family going on farm wages and I got a job at a plant doing time and motion study.”
Josh Logan Hired Him
A friend at the plant belonged to an amateur theater group and Van Cleef began to act with the troupe in 1947. In 1950, a director he had worked with brought him to New York to see talent agent Maynard Morris. Morris sent him straight to the Alvin Theater to see Joshua Logan, then casting the national company of “Mister Roberts,” the World War II Navy drama.
“I read some lines, very bad, and he says I’m hired and he wants me back tomorrow. I’m hit between the eyes. I’m working at the plant and doing public accounting at night and I don’t see how I can do it. But I was there Monday morning and I’ve been acting ever since.”
The “Mister Roberts” tour ended in Los Angeles. There, producer-director Stanley Kramer saw the play and engaged Van Cleef for “High Noon” as one of Gary Cooper’s tormenters.
“I can’t say enough good of Gary Cooper. He was so honest and had such respect for other people. He was beautiful.”
Van Cleef has three children from his first marriage to Patsy Ruth Van Cleef who lives in Athens, Ga.
“My oldest boy, Alan, finished four years at UCLA and is in officers training at Ft Benning, Ga. He wants to be a lawyer. My daughter Deborah is studying interior design at the University of Georgia.
“My younger son David is in high school in Athens..”
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