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Saturday, February 2, 2013

Bad at the Bijou Interview - Part 1

The following interview appears in the Book, BAD AT THE BIJOU by William Horner. It is part of his chapter on Lee Van Cleef. It is a great history of film villains.   This interview has been posted all over the internet, and several times on the LVC Web Board, so I figure it's fair game here.

The interview will be posted in 3 parts (3 posts)

I raised the subject of his career as a top-notch heavy, and learned surprisingly that Lee Van Cleef did not view his body of work as a series of violent spectacles. I suggested his naval service in both theaters of World War II undoubtedly offered numerous models for some of his screen roles and ordeals. Rather than his films' being an extension of combat experience, however, he categorized them primarily as outdoor adventures. "I think perhaps the only resource that I've got," he said of preparatory groundwork, "goes back to my childhood, because most of the films that I do are of an outdoor nature. And I was raised in the outdoors. I went on my first canoe trip when I was two years old. My dad and mother took me up the Raritan River, and I'm squattin' in the middle of a canoe. I can still remember that. Since then, I went to camps and all those things that a guy goes through in childhood. I was a Boy Scout. I didn't make Eagle, because I was too busy doing swimming, lifesaving and archery, things of that nature, and training other guys in the same area instead of paying attention to my own advancement.

"But I never got out of the woods, in a manner of speaking. I worked on farms after the war. One of the first jobs I had when I got out of the Navy was working in a hunting and fishing camp up in Maine, trying to get it ready for their season. I've always been outside, so that's got a helluvalot to do with it."

"So your background in Somerville, New Jersey, where you were born, was farming?" I asked.

"Farming? Yes, but when my three kids started coming into the world, my first wife and I just didn't have enough money, so I had to go working where more money was than on a farm. So I went to work in a plant, believe it or not, as a time study methods and motions analyst. I'd never said I'd work indoors in my life. I swore I wouldn't, but I did."

"How did you become an actor?"

"Accidental" Van Cleef chuckled. "There was a guy there that said come on out to the country in Clinton, New Jersey, which is kind of the home of little theater. So I went out there with him one night and tried out for a part-and damn if I didn't make it! And that thing was `George' in Our Town. And the second one I did out there was `Joe Pendleton,' the boxer in Heaven Can Wait.The director of Heaven Can Wait took me into New York to see if I should start studying dramatics, because he had kind of a, you know, good thoughts about me. I said, `Oh, come on!' ... because I didn't have acting in mind as a profession. Anyhow, I went into New York with him, to Maynard Morris in the MCA office, and he sent me over to the Alvin Theater on 52nd Street. There was about five hundred guys ahead of me-but damn if I didn't end up with a part. In Mister Roberts! Out of a plant I did ... you know ... I just changed my whole lifestyle. "I was in the national company. I didn't play it in New York. We rehearsed it there, and Hank Fonda joined us-which made our company number one-and I played in Mister Roberts on the road for fifteen months. Then we headed out here, producer Stanley Kramer sent me a telegram, I went on an interview, and I got into High Noon. That was my first show."

"Since you had been a farmhand, I suppose you were already a horseman, weren't you?"

"No, not really," Van Cleef said, "because it wasn't horses in Somerville. It was tractors and trucks on the farm. I didn't know beans about a horse until I got into film. As soon as I knew I was gonna be in High Noon when I came out here to California, then I got a guy that was in the stage play with me to go to a riding stable, and he taught me. everything I knew, at that point in time. We went out ever blood day from sometime early in August until September 15,1951, when I started to work. He had me doin' every kind of mount, dismount, run, walk, or any otherdarn thing on a horse, so that I could finally do the job properly in High Noon. And that guy that got me goin' on a horse, his name is Rance Howard, Ron and Clint Howard's father."

"Did you do a lot of the formal study associated with stagecraft while you were in the theater?" I asked. "Shakespeare? Dance?"

"I `sharpened my tools' is the way I like to put it. I haven't studied Shakespeare because I don't like the Shakespearean style. But I have studied swords, I studied dance, voice, all the physical things I ever found I needed."

"Was this with the American Academy of -?"

"No-o-o," Van Cleef interjected, "not with any academy. Just on my own. I went to the people that knew the stuff, and took private lessons."

"Do you not think formal study, training in the 'method' and so forth, are important to make a good actor?"

"I don't believe in what they call method acting. I don't know," he said, choosing his words carefully; "I don't believe in it. It could be good for some actors, but it's not good for me. As far as I'm concerned, method acting confuses audiences more than it tells them anything, and I think if you entertained them instead of confusing them, you'd get better results. Acting is a twisted up subject. I think to project yourself into another dimension, and then to make dimensions within the dimensions . . I think that's an art form the same as music or painting or anything else. Or writing, in a sense, because even though you didn't write the original lines or ideas, to bring them to life is as much a form of art as the original thing. Anybody that can do the acting should be able to do the writing. In a lot of those European films, for example, I've done a lot of my own dialogue changes just to make it more compatible with my manner of speech, and my patterns, shall we say. I've never changed their ideas, just the way to say them or carry them out. Sometimes I even drop lines. Most actors like to add lines. They think the more they have, the better off they are. Bullshit! Sometimes I'd rather just use my eyes, use my face."

"More on that later," I forewarned. "But first, how did that longstanding stereotype as a villain get started? Was it doing the gunman in High Noon that locked you in place?"

"You're right. It started with High Noon, and that was it."

"You were one of Hollywood's biggest heavies all the time your three children were growing up. How did they handle that?"

"They handled it beautifully. Beau-tifully! No problem."

"Was Daddy always the hero when he got home?" I joked, a notion that amused him.

"I'd like to think so!" he laughed, then reflected soberly. "But ... sometimes I wasn't even here for them. I'd be away on a job. I wasn't a heavy at home, but I wasn't a hero. I don't pretend to be a hero anyplace except perhaps on film. I believe in other dimensions. Now, my kids are kind of proud of what I did, so ... everything turns out well."

"During those early years, was the chain of heavies completely unbroken?" I asked.

"Oh no. I did other things, but they were never recognized too much. Like, I did a guest-lead in 'The Medic,' that program Dick Boone starred in. I played a doctor in an episode called, I think, Day Ten, about the plague epidemic in L..A. back in the thirties."

"Frankly," I said, "while I've seen many of your films, what comes across in hindsight is not individual roles or movies so much-that is, prior to your move to Europe-as an overall impression of characters like the one you did in Posse from Hell. To me, he was the typical Van Cleef style villain, a man so dangerous as to be almost infernally powered, a dreadfully bad human being. As the film opened, the outlaws strode into a saloon. Your character approached a milquetoast at the bar and without any warning proceeded to grab a whiskey bottle out of his hand. Unaccustomed to such rudeness, the man resisted. You matter-of-factly unsheathed a knife and cut his hand, a show of unadulterated spitefulness that totally disarmed him, and your icy stare propelled him clear across the room. Later, when the posse had ridden you down and gut-shot you, you begged them not to let you die there in the desert, claiming, `Yew cain't leave me like this! Yer Christians, aintcha?I' It was the sorriest soul demanding mercy he, himself, would never have extended. He was the worst of bad eggs; in his malice, a step beyond your more common villains. How did you manage to project such heinous characters during those years, most of them seemingly motivated by an invincible evil?"

"Mmmmmnh!" Van Cleef flinched. "I despised that film, for some reason. I don't know exactly why, but every time it comes on tv, I turn it off. But I've liked other ones. In fact, I haven't got one other one that I don't like.

"But the thing about playing a heavy is don't make yourself so completely invincible. That's what I've been trying to do with every damn picture since I knew what I was doing. I don't want to be so completely invincible, because I don't think that's human. You want to see a guy down on his knees cryin' for mercy, I did a picture called The Bravados with Gregory Peck, Henry Silva, Stephen Boyd ... a lot of good ones in that one-where I was gonna get Peck, but he came around from the other direction, had his gun on me, there was nothing I could do. We went through that thing where he was showing me a picture of his wife in ' a watch, I swore I didn't know anything about it, he didn't believe me, and he plugged me right in the head. Shot me dead away." (In The Bravados, Albert Salmi, Henry Silva, and Van Cleef were the central heavies; a white man, an Indian, and a half-breed. They were already arrested for capital crimes, had been convicted, faced the noose, broke jail, and circumstantial evidence pointed to them as the rapistkillers of Gregory Peck's wife. Peck tracked down the white man [Salmi] and half-breed [Van Cleef] and slew them in horrendously moving scenes. Not until the end of the picture, when Peck learned his wife's real murderers had been caught, was there any reason to credit the tortured cries of innocence from the two men just before they were killed. The bad taste left by The Bravados' executions-of guilty men, but for the wrong crime-was as strong as that left by those of innocent men in The Ox-Bow Incident.)

"I think I grew up a little with The Bravados," I conceded, "and for a piece of supportive acting, that may have been your finest. It was probably the flrst time I'd ever taken pity on a bad guy about to get blown away, something that had always seemed an entirely appropriate action beforehand."

"That's what I look for in fllm," Van Cleef declared. "Some place to have a bit of sympathy-not pity-but sympathy; so that the audience feels they're almost-almost, I say-as much on your side as they are on the leading man's. Once I learned what I was doin', which only took a picture or two, I tried to flnd some extra dimension to every character, a sympathetic area. Now, right or wrong, I've done that all these years. It gives you another thing to do. Sometimes you don't find 'em. But if you can, and use them, it helps; like patting a child on the head, instead of kickin' him in the ass. Never hurt a dog. I don't kick dogs. I don't pound women. I haven't slapped a woman yet on screen."

"You did that in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," I contradicted.

"That was done by a stunt man, not by me, because I refused to do it. The girl wanted to be slapped, actually slapped. I'm six-feet two, weigh around one-ninety, two hundred, I'm fairly well put together. I've got a heavy hand, and I don't like to do things that could possibly hurt somebody, in any way."

"Playing the villain, is there anything special you consciously do to act malicious in a role?" I asked.

"Nnnn-no," he pondered, "I just believe what I'm doing, and have a respect for the other guy; and I've got to do it that way, it's as simple as that.

"And," he added, "I'm playin' three guys: myself, the character that I've read ... and that last guy in the balcony lookin' down at me. It's like bein' in three places at once. You're you, you're playin' the character

-that makes two, right there-then, the guy that's watchin' it, so that you're able to actually see what you're doin' ... just like I'm lookin' into this microphone, right now. There's a point for anybody to learn from," he offered circumspectly.

"Since the invention of motion pictures," I said, "the Code of the West followed by so many of the traditional Western heroes has played some real part in the moral upbringing of three generations. As a villain, did you ever see yourself in a pedagogical Function; that by the way you presented your character, you could turn young people off to that kind of person, and the wrong things he was doing?"

"That's ... a pretty good way to put it," Van Cleef said, mulling the notion over. "I think that's a very good way to put it," he concluded.

"I have felt that the hero in a picture-if it's me, I want it to be a little bit of both ways-but if it's somebody else, say a Gene Autry or Jock Mahoney, Roy Rogers or whoever you want to say ... whatever I did as a heavy, I did as heavy as I could; then the other guy is that much stronger. And that's the way it should be, cause he's gotta win in the end. You know that. It's necessary to be as strong as possible in a fight scene or a gunfight or whatever, so the other guy comes out properly, even though I still tried at times to get a moment of sympathetic area doing the thing. I did the same thing as a hero, played it as strong as possible. I'm not in any way against violence if it's justified. I have played the bad guy, and enjoyed playing the bad guy ... but let the justification tear-me-down! Or, build me up, in case I'm the hero."

"In addition to The Bravados, was there anything else you did back then as a character heavy that you were particularly proud of?" I asked.

"I think that prior to the European move," he considered, "the things that I think about, more often than anything else that happened in ' major films back there, are the television jobs. There was a lot of good ones on there, even though it was made cheap and fast; and I enjoyed workin' with Bill Williams, and with Jock Mahoney ... uh ... darn! I can't think of all their names, so maybe I'd better not mention any more. But those things were really a great school for me. I learned from all of them, and I think I did some damn fine stuff."

"You spent half your career as a character actor before making your own films. I'm sure, like most actors, you had your lean times," I judged, "but would you do it all the same, if you could do it over?"

"Most definitely." Van Cleef's smooth, deep voice returned with hang tough resignation. "The only regrets I've got is the unhealthiness that can come out of idleness."

"What was your longest dry spell?"

"Oh, boy!" he groaned. "That's a good question. I don't know exactly what the length of the period was, but I think the worst one I had was just before the advent of the Italian Westerns."


  1. Got to meet Stephen Boyd in the mid 1970's and knowing that he worked with Lee in The Bravados, I knew he probably remembered something about him so toward the end of my talk with Boyd, I brought up the film and Lee Van Cleef and was very surprised to learn he and Lee were good friends and use to be neighbors in the San Fernando Valley section of LA. Boyd is fantastic in "Ben Hur".

    1. Cool story, thanks for sharing. I like learning who knew who and how they felt about each other. I would never had considered Boyd and Van Cleef friends.

  2. I have this book myself. Jack Elam is featured too. A pity Leo Gordon is not though!