Lee van Cleef started his acting career in the late forties, after leaving the United States navy. After a series of roles in theater plays, he was spotted by a talent scout, who drove him to a renowned agency. His entrance ticket for the motion picture industry, though, came after a few years, when – after seeing him performing in a play in Los Angeles – famous Hollywood director Stanley Kramer invited Cleef to be part of his next film, High Noon, which would be the actor’s big screen debut. The movie – a western starred by Gary Cooper – was produced by Kramer and directed by Fred Zinnemann. Cleef had a very small part, as a character named Jack Colby. The movie was released in 1952. In this same year, van Cleef also debuted on television, appearing in shows like Sky King and Boston Blackie, as well as The Lone Ranger and The Range Rider. In these last two, he would be cast in episodes until the following year.
While this period in van Cleef’s career was significant, given the fact that he had managed to break into the movie and television industries, despite being a terrifically skilled and versatile actor, he would very soon start to suffer from a terrible plague that frequently affects people in the business: typecasting.
As time passed – more than a decade went by –, van Cleef managed to participate in moderately successful films, sometimes in good and relevant roles, sometimes doing minor parts in not so remarkable movies. His fortunes changed, though, when Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone decided to cast him in the 1965 western For a Few Dollars More, where he would star alongside Clint Eastwood. On this movie, van Cleef plays a character named Douglas Mortimer, while Eastwood portrays a tough individual that answers by the alias of Manco. Both are bounty hunters, that fight to survive the implacable ordeals of the old west. The movie also starred notorious German actor Klaus Kinski, in a villainous role.
This movie – alongside with a handful of others – was the main responsible for giving birth to a subgenre of western movies, that would later be called western spaghetti: low-budget westerns, that were shot primarily in Italy. Lee van Cleef would star in several of these movies, eventually becoming an icon of the genre. In the following year, he starred again with Clint Eastwood in a Sergio Leone production, a western spaghetti titled The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, already mentioned. This legendary film acquired cult status since it was released, in 1966, and became a highlight of the genre.
In the seventies and eighties, van Cleef worked on television only sporadically. On this period he concentrated almost exclusively on film, since he was rarely out of offers, though invitations to star in movies also started to decline. In 1981, he co-starred with Kurt Russell in the John Carpenter directed science-fiction feature Escape from New York.
Suffering from bad health – more specifically from a heart condition – since the late seventies, in the eighties van Cleef had to undergone a surgery, where doctors implanted a pacemaker. Forced to slow down, he acted in only a few more movies. With an exotic appearance that made him look easterner, in 1984, van Cleef was cast in the main role of John McAllister, a ninja, despite the American name, in the NBC television series The Master. The show was cancelled after only thirteen episodes, and was the last television show in which van Cleef had participated, and the only one he had done in the eighties.
In the last decade of his life, van Cleef was featured in nine movies. His last film was 1988 Thieves of Fortune, a movie directed by Michael MacCarthy, on which he played a character named Sergio Danielo. The actor died in his home in California, in December 16, 1989, at sixty-four years old. Besides his heart condition, he also had throat cancer. With a legacy encompassing almost ninety movies, and more than thirty television shows, Lee van Cleef has left crime and western movie enthusiasts in a rapturous urge of passionate and belligerent grace, whenever he was on the screen.