Born Clarence Leroy Van Cleef on January 9, 1925, in Somerville, New Jersey, Lee Van Cleef cultivated an interest in acting following a stint in the Navy during World War II. Immediately before shipping out with the U.S. Navy, Van Cleef married his high school sweetheart, Patsy, in 1943, and the couple eventually had three children. After his release from active duty, Van Cleef worked as an accountant. But soon he began taking roles in off-Broadway stage productions, and Van Cleef's natural acting talent got him noticed by famed director Stanley Kramer. He cast the young actor as the villainous Jack Colby in High Noon (1952). His success in this role and other westerns typecast him; throughout the 1950s, Van Cleef usually portrayed the bad guy. He also made several film noir thrillers and a couple of science fiction films. And even in the low-budget science fiction American International release It Conquered the World (1956; with Beverly Garland), Van Cleef's character is ultimately a villain who helps a menacing alien in a quest to take over Earth.

During his years as a contract player at United Artists and Universal, Van Cleef acted in memorable films such as Kansas City Confidential (1952; with John Payne; The Lawless Breed (1953; with Julie Adams; and The Big Combo (1955; with Cornel Wilde and Richard Conte). By the late 1950s, his career was going very well; for example, in 1957, he appeared in at least ten films and made several guest appearances on television shows. However, in 1959 a serious auto accident sidelined Van Cleef; his convertible was hit head-on by a truck. The accident shattered his kneecap and left him with a limp. But with theraphy and determination, he was able to regain full use of his leg. With his film career gone and the end of his first marriage, Van Cleef remarried and tried to rebuild his acting career by taking any role he could find, often small roles on television series. Nearly broke by 1965, his film career was revitalized when Sergio Leone sought out Van Cleef to cast him as Colonel Douglas Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More. Van Cleef quickly became an international star in spaghetti westerns playing both villains and heroes.

the films of lee van cleef

Tumbleweed (1953)

Lee Van Cleef, Audie Murphy, and Chill Wills

With Audie Murphy and Chill Wills in the Universal-International western Tumbleweed

It Conquered the World (1956)

Lee Van Cleef

As scientist Tom Anderson, Van Cleef is killed by the alien life form he guided to Earth in Roger Corman's campy science fiction flick It Conquered the World, released by American International

The Quiet Gun (1957)

Forrest Tucker and Lee Van Cleef

With Forrest Tucker in the 20th Century Fox western The Quiet Gun

The Big Gundown (1966)

Lee Van Cleef and Tomas Milian

Van Cleef and Tomas Milian in the spaghetti western The Big Gundown

Day of Anger (1967)

Lee Van Cleef and Giuliano GemmaGiuliano Gemma and Lee Van Cleef

From the spaghetti western Day of Anger with Giuliano Gemma

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967)

Lee Van Cleef

Van Cleef as Angel Eyes in Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, probably the best spaghetti western ever made

Commandos (1968)

Lee Van CleefLee Van CleefLee Van Cleef

From the Italian-made war film Commandos

Barquero (1970)

Lee Van Cleef and Mariette HartleyLee Van Cleef

From in Barquero. LEFT: With Mariette Hartley. RIGHT: Van Cleef as Travis

El Condor (1970)

Lee Van CleefJim Brown and Lee Van Cleef

From the western El Condor, which was shot in Spain. LEFT: Van Cleef as Jaroo, who attempts to steal a fortune in gold. RIGHT: Luke (Jim Brown) and Jaroo are caught by soldiers

Sabata (1970)

Lee Van CleefLee Van CleefLee Van Cleef

Van Cleef as the heroic gunslinger Sabata

The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972)

Lee Van Cleef

Images from The Magnificent Seven Ride!, the final film in the Magnificent Seven series of films.

The Perfect Killer (1977)

Lee Van Cleef and John IrelandLee Van Cleef

From The Perfect Killer. LEFT: With John Ireland. RIGHT: Van Cleef as hit man Harry Chapman

The Master (1984 NBC TV Series)

Lee Van Cleef

Van Cleef as John Peter McAlister in NBC's The Master, his only television series. This show was based on the travels of an aging ninja, assisted by a sidekick portrayed by Timothy Van Patten. All thirteen episodes of the show were later edited into seven different films, two of which aired on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the early 1990s

later years

Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, Van Cleef worked steadily in Europe. When the spaghetti western craze died down, he returned to Hollywood, remarried once more, and continued acting in films, mostly low-budget affairs. At the age of 59, Van Cleef took the starring role in the short-lived NBC series The Master, which was canceled after just 13 episodes. After production wrapped on the film Thieves of Fortune (1990; with Michael Nouri and Liz Torres), Lee Van Cleef was felled by a heart attack at age 64 on December 16, 1989. He was survived by his third wife, Barbara, and a daughter and two sons from his first marriage.

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Thieves of Fortune (1990) with Michael Nouri and Liz Torres
Speed Zone! (1989) with John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Tim Matheson, and Donna Dixon
The Commander (1988) with Donald Pleasence and Brett Halsey
Armed Response (1986) with David Carradine, Ross Hagen, and Dick Miller; directed by Fred Olen Ray
Jungle Raiders (1985)
Code Name: Wild Geese (1984) with Ernest Borgnine, Klaus Kinski, and Mimsy Farmer
Killing Machine (1984) with Jorge Rivero, Margaux Hemingway, and Willie Aames
Master Ninja I (1984) with Timothy Van Patten, Clu Gulager, Claude Akins, and Demi Moore; once aired on Mystery Science Theater 3000
Master Ninja II (1984) with Timothy Van Patten and George Lazenby; once aired on Mystery Science Theater 3000
Escape from New York (1981) with Kurt Russell, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, and Adrienne Barbeau
The Octagon (1980) with Chuck Norris
The Hard Way (1979) with Patrick McGoohan
The Squeeze (1978) with Karen Black and Robert Alda
The Perfect Killer (1977) with John Ireland
Nowhere to Hide (1977) with Russell Johnson
Take Another Hard Ride (1977) with Jim Brown, Leif Garrett, and Glynnis O'Connor
God's Gun (1976) with Jack Palance, Leif Garrett, Richard Boone, and Sybil Danning
Take a Hard Ride (1975) with Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Dana Andrews, Jim Kelly, and Barry Sullivan
Blood Money (1974) with Erika Blanc
Mean Frank and Crazy Tony (1973) with Tony Lo Bianco and Jess Hahn
The Big Showdown (1972) with Horst Frank and Jess Hahn
The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972) with Michael Callen, Mariette Hartley, Stefanie Powers, Ralph Waite, and Gary Busey
Bad Man's River (1972) with James Mason, Gina Lollobrigida, and Jess Hahn
Return of Sabata (1971)
Captain Apache (1971) with Stuart Whitman and Carroll Baker
El Condor (1970) with Jim Brown, Elisha Cook Jr., and Patrick O'Neal
Sabata (1970) with William Berger
Barquero (1970) with Forrest Tucker, Kerwin Mathews, Mariette Hartley, and Warren Oates
Beyond the Law (1968) with Norman Mailer and Rip Torn
Commandos (1968) with Jack Kelly and Marilu Tolo
Death Rides a Horse (1968) with John Phillip Law
Beyond the Law (1967) with Gordon Mitchell, Antonio Sabato, and Lionel Stander
Day of Anger (1967) with Giuliano Gemma
Blade Rider, Revenge of the Indian Nations (1967) with Burt Reynolds, Chuck Connors, David Brian, and Robert Lansing
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1967) with Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach
The Big Gundown (1966)
For a Few Dollars More (1965) with Clint Eastwood and Klaus Kinski
The Slowest Gun in the West (1963) with Jack Benny, Phil Silvers, and Bruce Cabot
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) with John Wayne, James Stewart, Vera Miles, John Carradine, and Woody Strode
Posse from Hell (1961) with Audie Murphy, John Saxon, and Vic Morrow
Guns, Girls, and Gangsters (1959) with Mamie Van Doren and Gerald Mohr
Ride Lonesome (1959) with Randolph Scott, James Best, and Pernell Roberts
Machete (1958) with Mari Blanchard and Albert Dekker
The Bravados (1958) with Gregory Peck, Stephen Boyd, Joan Collins, and Barry Coe
The Young Lions (1958) with Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Dean Martin, Barbara Rush, and Hope Lange
Day of the Bad Man (1958) with Fred MacMurray, Marie Windsor, and John Ericson
The Tin Star (1957) with Henry Fonda, Betsy Palmer, Neville Brand, and Anthony Perkins
China Gate (1957) with Gene Barry, Nat 'King' Cole, and Angie Dickinson
Raiders of Old California (1957) with Jim Davis and Marty Robbins
Gun Battle at Monterey (1957) with Sterling Hayden and Mary Beth Hughes
Joe Dakota (1957) with Jock Mahoney, Claude Akins, and Luana Patten
The Lonely Man (1957) with Jack Palance, Elisha Cook Jr., Anthony Perkins, and Neville Brand
The Last Stagecoach West (1957) with Jim Davis, Victor Jory, and Glenn Strange
The Quiet Gun (1957) with Mara Corday, Forrest Tucker, and Jim Davis
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) with Burt Lancaster, Rhonda Fleming, Kirk Douglas, John Ireland, Lyle Bettger, and Martin Milner
The Badge of Marshal Brennan (1957) with Jim Davis and Marty Robbins
Accused of Murder (1956) with David Brian, Vera Ralston, Virginia Grey, and Warren Stevens
Pardners (1956) with Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Lori Nelson, Lon Chaney Jr., Jeff Morrow, and Agnes Moorehead
It Conquered the World (1956) with Beverly Garland, Peter Graves, and Dick Miller
Tribute to a Bad Man (1956) with James Cagney and Vic Morrow
The Conqueror (1956) with John Wayne, Susan Hayward, William Conrad, and Agnes Moorehead
The Vanishing American (1955) with Scott Brady, Jim Davis, Forrest Tucker, and Glenn Strange
A Man Alone (1955) with Ray Milland, Raymond Burr, and Ward Bond
The Road to Denver (1955) with John Payne, Mona Freeman, and Lee J. Cobb
I Cover the Underworld (1955) with Sean McClory
The Big Combo (1955) with Cornel Wilde, Brian Donlevy, Richard Conte, Helen Walker, and Jean Wallace
Ten Wanted Men (1955) with Randolph Scott and Richard Boone
Treasure of Ruby Hills (1955) with Zachary Scott, Carole Mathews, and Dick Foran
The Yellow Tomahawk (1954) with Rory Calhoun, Peter Graves, Rita Moreno, and Peggie Castle
Dawn at Socorro (1954) with Rory Calhoun, Piper Laurie, Mara Corday, Alex Nicol, and David Brian
Princess of the Nile (1954) with Debra Paget, Jeffrey Hunter, Michael Rennie, and Merry Anders
The Desperado (1954) with Beverly Garland, Wayne Morris, Dabbs Greer, and Nestor Paiva
Rails Into Laramie (1954) with John Payne, Mari Blanchard, Dan Duryea, and Myron Healey
Arrow In the Dust (1954) with Sterling Hayden and Coleen Gray
Tumbleweed (1953) with Audie Murphy, Lori Nelson, Chill Wills, and Russell Johnson
The Nebraskan (1953) with Philip Carey
Jack Slade (1953) with Mark Stevens and Dorothy Malone
Vice Squad (1953) with Edward G. Robinson and Paulette Goddard
Arena (1953) with Jean Hagen, Gig Young, Robert Horton, and Polly Bergen
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) with Paula Raymond, Paul Christian, Cecil Kellaway, and Steve Brodie
Gypsy Colt (1953) with Frances Dee and Ward Bond
White Lightning (1953) with Steve Brodie and Myron Healey
The Bandits of Corsica (1953) with Paula Raymond, Raymond Burr, Richard Greene, Dona Drake, Nestor Paiva, and Clayton Moore
The Lawless Breed (1953) with Rock Hudson, Julie Adams, Hugh O'Brian, and Glenn Strange
Kansas City Confidential (1952) with John Payne, Coleen Gray, and Neville Brand
Untamed Frontier (1952) with Shelley Winters, Scott Brady, Joseph Cotten, and Suzan Ball
High Noon (1952) with Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado, and Lon Chaney Jr.

The Master, 1984 NBC TV series. Lee Van Cleef portrayed John Peter McAlister
Additionally, Van Cleef made numerous guest appearances on such popular TV shows as Gunsmoke, Laramie, Branded, and Perry Mason.

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Watch Lee Van Cleef's 1972 spaghetti western The Grand Duel
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