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Monday, September 24, 2012

1978 Interview by Alex Cox

Interview by Alex Cox.

I came into this town in a stage play called Mr. Roberts. Stanley Kramer saw it an put me in this picture called High Noon The first time I went into his office he told me to fix my nose and I told him to go ... himself. So he told me that instead of playing the second leads I would have to play one of the silent heavies. I said, "Fine - Silent is the best way I play." In fact, in the middle of the picture, Fred Zimmeman, the director said "I want you to say howdy or something to Ian Macdonald as he's getting down of the train." And I said I didn't think I should - I've been playing the silent type and if I open my mouth one iota the power of my character will be destroyed. He agreed with me. Most actors like to talk, I don't. I read scripts and cut the dialog down to the bare essentials. I've always done that.

Is that what you'd call your approach to acting?

There is no approach to acting other than sharpening your tools. You learn how to use a sword, stunt fighting, how to use your voice, how to dance - all this is sharpening your tools. It's a basic necessity for all actors. But I don't think many actors are doing that today.

Of the American parts you played, which were you the happiest with?
I got happiness out of every damn one I did. I'm not just saying that to sound off - I really did. Even the old Range Rider series, and Space Patrol on tv. I got knocked out in one - some old actor hit me in the head with a plastic gun and down I went. And we were doing that live.

How did you meet Sergio Leone?

Leone came over in 1965, looking for two actors he had in mind for his second western. The moment we met up he said, "That's it - That's the guy who's going to play Colonel Mortimer in For A Few Dollars More" Well I wasn't going to argue with him - Hell, I couldn't pay my phone bill at the time. I went over and did it, payed my phone bill, and exactly a year later to the day - August 12th - I was called back to do The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. And back-to-back with that I made The Big Gundown. But now instead of making Seventeen thousand dollars I was making a hundred-and-something. And that was Leone's doing, not mine. And I was doing leads and heavies in Italy from then on.

What was the set of an Italian western like?
It was a lot of fun. I tried to learn the languages - Italian, Spanish, and German - not to successfully. Working on a European set isn't a hell of a lot different from working on an American set. I think the Europeans are a lot more spontaneous, more artistic to some degree. But I don't think they have the technical talent we do here in the states. Here people have been trained much more specifically - they know exactly what they're doing. The Europeans are perhaps slower, but in the end damn near as good.

How did the characters you played differ from the ones in the original scripts?
The one area I disagreed with in the italian scripts was dialog. There was too much of it. I'd be given a half god-damn page of dialog to read; and, look, I can get this across in two words. Maybe it's a difference in the languages, but I had to rewrite every damn scene I was in. I reduced the whole thing - changed to a "Hello" or a "Pardon me, ma'am." A lot of actors think that the more lines they have the more attention they get. That's bullshit. I make people look at me. I don't have to say a lot of words.

Did Leone speak much English in the early days?
On For A Few Dollars More, no. He did the next year. Now he speaks it almost fluently. But it caused no problems - I understood exactly what he wanted. It was an instictive thing. He demonstrated a little bit, and there was always an interpreter on the set. But I knew from the script what was expected of me. The next year, he'd learned more english and we got along even better. He would walk through what he wanted done, then I'd do it my way... and he always accepted the difference.

Did the italian directors play music on the set?
I never experienced that. But Leone did play Morricone scores for me, beforehand. It didn't help me anyway. I'm not going to act to music unless I'm doing a musical.

Did making two films back-to-back create any problems?
No. Different parts doesn't mean a thing - not for somebody who thinks he's an actor. The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly was strictly a heavy, just a mean son of a bitch - nasty because he could smile doing it. The Big Gundown was a surly character, but not a heavy. The guys behind me in the picture wanted me to be a politician, but I had no aspirations and I erased that from my mind as an actor.

Do you have any regrets about the italian films you made?
No. I don't care where I work. Films are an international business - not an American institution. You go where the work is. It can be in my own back yard, Israel, Spain, or Yugoslavia. We may have the greatest technical efficiency in the world, but our artistic values are not necessarily the best.

You rate the art direction in a European picture?

Yes. And the timing. Editing is really where Leone's at the top. His timing is great. Our directors are involved in editing, but they don't do it. Leone does it himself, he's inspired by it, and he had me come into the editing room while he was putting together The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, to show me something he had done. It was a beautiful experience.

Did he ask you to be in Once Upon A Time in the West?
I turned it down. I don't remember exactly why. I didn't like the way it was written.

What about the circus westerns, like the Sabata films?

They're sort-of-serious westerns, but they hinge on being spoofs. I enjoyed them, but they weren't like the Leone films. I don't think it was Parolini's fault - it was as much a fault of the script. I did as good as I could. But if things aren't in the script you can't direct them and you sure can't act them. You can try to add on to it as best you can, but if it's not there in the first place you have a wee bit of a problem. They looked like they were going to be alright. I turned down Indio Black and they got Yul Brynner instead. I didn't like it when I saw it on tv.

Around that time you made Barquero.
Barquero was done in Colorado. Jack Sparr was going to direct it, but he was killed during location hunting, in a plane crash. Gordon Douglas took over, he's a good speed director, makes good television shows; and Warren Oates wasn't anything to sneeze at. But... I think Forrest Tucker and I goofed on that one.

You wouldn't play another role like that?

I'd like to do more comedy, but i think my forte is still in the heavy. I'd love to do a comic lead, a musical.

You paint in your spare time, so you obviously have an eye for composition. Have you ever considered directing?
Definitely. My brother-in-law's got a script i would love to direct. It's a half-ass comedy called Wet Paint. I'd play one of the two parts - Wet Paint himself or a guitar player who comments on the action. And if I could direct it I would be very happy. But the economics of business don't always allow you to do what you want. Clint Eastwood's directing films though.... We'll see what happens.

1 comment:

  1. Other interviews list April 12, 1965 at the starting date of For A Few Dollars More rather than August 12. Lee probably meant to say April or it's a typo. I think For A Few Dollars More ran for 10 weeks so they probably finished shooting in mid to late June. Lee then returned to Hollywood and went back to taking what TV episodes he could find and actually did several between For A Few Dollars More and Good, The Bad and The Ugly including Laredo, Gunsmoke, Branded, My Mother the Car etc. Clint Eastwood stayed in Italy and did a part in a film called The Witches. Lee has stated that Good, Bad and Ugly began ONE YEAR TO THE DAY after For A Few Dollars More in 1966 which would be April 12, 1966. It shot for 13 weeks which means Lee, Clint and Eli Wallach grinded away in Spain and in the studio in Rome until July of 1966. And all three parted good friends just as Clint and Lee got alone very well the previous year in 1965. No Bette Davis/Joan Crawford/Marlon Brando blowups and complaining between these men. Big Gundown began immediately using many of the same locations in Spain and some shooting in Rome and must have wrapped in in late September as it took about 9 to 10 weeks. Lee Van Cleef finished up 5 months of filming in Spain and Rome, Italy. And the next year, 1967, Lee was in 3 films shot there. No wonder Lee decided to have an apartment in Rome while those films "we coming fast and furious" as he put it.

    Also in late 1966 Lee flew to New York City to dub the English version of For A Few Dollars More and did Good, Bad and Ugly there in very early 1967 before he flew back to Europe for "Death Rides A Horse", Day of Anger" and "Beyond the Law". When 1967 came to a close, Lee Van Cleef could certainly pay is phone bill. Lee must have earned a million dollars that year or close to it.

    And in several interviews, Lee always thanked and/or credited Sergio Leone for his rags to riches change of costume!

    Also I remember reading that in the late 70's, Lee ran into Clint Eastwood and offered him a script he thought would be a good vehicle for them to work together again but Lee said "he never heard back from Clint". I imagine "Wet Paint" was it?

    And obviously "Wet Paint" with Lee Van Cleef directing never went before the cameras. I think Lee's brother-in-law got that script to Lee somehow. Anybody remember that?

    Starting with Hang 'Um High in 1968, Clint Eastwood really never did a film with the exceptions of Where Eagles Dare and Paint Your Wagon that was outside Clint's own production arm did he? And certainly wasn't by the time Lee came to him with "Wet Paint". And if Clint HAD liked the script enough to do the film (maybe Clint did but didn't have control), it would have been Clint's film and Clint probably would have directed it IF it were to be done. I would imagine he would have had a part for Lee if Clint had taken the film thought. But Clint Eastwood in 1978 wouldn't get involved with a Lee Van Cleef project except if CLINT was to take complete control of the thing! Right?