Following a wartime tour with the Navy, New Jersey-born Lee Van Cleef supported himself as an accountant. Like fellow accountant-turned-actor Jack Elam, Van Cleef was advised by his clients that he had just the right satanic facial features to thrive as a movie villain. With such rare exceptions as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1954), Van Cleef spent most of his early screen career on the wrong side of the law, menacing everyone from Gary Cooper (High Noon) to the Bowery Boys (Private Eyes) with his cold, shark-eyed stare. Van Cleef left Hollywood in the '60s to appear in European spaghetti Westerns, initially as a secondary actor; he was, for example, the "Bad" in Clint Eastwood's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Within a few years, Van Cleef was starring in blood-spattered action films with such titles as Day of Anger (1967), El Condor (1970), and Mean Frank and Crazy Tony (1975). The actor was, for many years, one of the international film scene's biggest box-office draws. Returning to Hollywood in the late '70s, He starred in a very short-lived martial arts TV series The Master (1984), the pilot episodes of which were pieced together into an ersatz feature film for video rental. Van Cleef died of a heart attack in 1989.
photo credit: Getty Images
by Hal Erickson biography