Thursday, February 8, 2024

Lee Van Cleef: Legendary Hollywood Bad Guy and World War Two Sailor

By Zach Smyers
HRNM Educator

With his distinctive hooked nose, piercing eyes, and powerful baritone voice, Lee Van Cleef became one of the most recognizable villains on both television and the silver screen. However, before his fame in Hollywood, Van Cleef served in the United States Navy.

Clarence Leroy Van Cleef was born on January 9, 1925, in Somerville, New Jersey. After graduating from high school, Van Cleef enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17. He completed basic training and then attended Sonarman School. Upon graduating, he received a promotion to Sonarman Third Class. Van Cleef then received orders to his first ship, USS SC 681, which he served on from March 15, 1943, to January 16, 1944. During his time aboard SC 681, Van Cleef was promoted to Sonarman Second Class. SC 681 kept Van Cleef busy while the ship’s crew searched for German U-Boats in the Caribbean. When he finished his time aboard SC 681, Van Cleef received orders to the Fleet Sound School in Key West, Florida.

Lee Van Cleef as a Sailor (

After graduating from Fleet Sound School, Van Cleef went to Savannah, Georgia, as part of the pre-commissioning crew for USS Incredible (AM 249). He reported in April 1944, and after commissioning, Incredible had its shakedown cruise along the East Coast and in the Caribbean Sea. On July 24, 1944, Incredible left Norfolk to participate in the invasion of southern France. Incredible stayed on station sweeping for mines off southern France until January 1945. Incredible then sailed to the Soviet Union, performing mine sweeping in the Black Sea. In July 1945, Incredible once again left Norfolk, this time heading for the Pacific Theatre. In August 1945, Incredible participated in Operation Skagway, clearing mines in the East China Sea and Ryukyu Islands. While serving aboard Incredible, Van Cleef was promoted to Sonarman First Class. He was honorably discharged from the Navy on February 20, 1946.

USS Incredible, Lee Van Cleef's second ship (

Back home, Van Cleef began his acting career in plays at The Little Theater Group in Clinton, New Jersey. He started out reading for the play Our Town and eventually landed the part of Joe Pendleton in Heaven Can Wait. During a performance of Heaven Can Wait, he was noticed by talent scouts, leading to an audition for the play Mister Roberts with Henry Fonda. Van Cleef landed a part in Mister Roberts, which eventually took him to Los Angeles. There, his work on stage caught the attention of film producer Stanley Kramer. Kramer offered Van Cleef a part in his next film, High Noon, as the deputy opposite Marshal Will Cane, played by Gary Cooper. For this part, however, Kramer insisted that Van Cleef have surgery on his nose. Refusing to alter his physical appearance, Van Cleef instead accepted the role as gunfighter Jack Colby. Although he had no speaking lines in the film, Van Cleef’s screen presence and persona led to many future roles as a villain.

Van Cleef in High Noon (

High Noon was released in 1952, ending as a tremendous success. It opened the door for Van Cleef to many additional acting roles. From 1952 to 1965, Van Cleef worked in both television and movies, including major roles in the films Kansas City Confidential, The Big Combo, and Vice Squad. In addition to films, Van Cleef appeared in several of the popular western TV shows of the time, including Tales of Wells Fargo, Annie Oakley, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Maverick, and The Rifleman. Still, it wasn’t until 1965, when Italian director Sergio Leone cast him with Clint Eastwood in For A Few Dollars More, that Van Cleef finally achieved star status.

The success of For A Few Dollars More led Sergio Leone to cast Van Cleef with Eastwood again the following year in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. The best of the three films that Eastwood made with Leone, Van Cleef’s portrayal of “The Bad” is considered to be one of the greatest villains in a western film.

Lee Van Cleef in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (

With his newfound stardom in the United States and also in Europe, Van Cleef went on to be a leading man in several films produced in Italy in the “Spaghetti Western” genre, usually playing the protagonist. In his later career, he starred with Chuck Norris in The Octagon and had a supporting role in the cult classic Escape from New York. Lee Van Cleef died from a heart attack in 1989 and was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Hollywood, California. Among those paying their respects at Van Cleef’s funeral was Clint Eastwood. Lee Van Cleef’s acting career includes 90 roles in movies and 109 television appearances. Along with being a screen legend in the western genre, Van Cleef was also part of the Greatest Generation, serving his country during World War Two.

Lee Van Cleef in Death Rides a Horse, 1968 (Wikipedia)

1 comment:

AdcopUSN said...

I did not know that. But if Van Cleef stayed on, he would have made a "formidable" Chief Petty Officer or even Warrant. He would be the lord and master in any chief's initiation. Great article - thanks