Lee Van Cleef was a film star that made a name for himself performing as intimidating characters in classics like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Lee was in the US Navy and saw plenty of combat during World War II, so there was a good deal of truth to his macho persona. The actor suffered from a long-term injury, but the injury didn’t come from his time in the military. Join Facts Verse as we explore the painful condition Lee Van Cleef suffered from until his death.
Lee Van Cleef’s Early Life
Lee Van Cleef was born in Somerville, New Jersey, on January 9, 1925. After high school, he decided that he wanted to join the US Navy. He served during World War II and saw plenty of combat. After returning from the war, it took a while for Lee to figure out what he wanted to make a career out of. He tried out multiple different professions, including working as an office administrator and as an accountant. For a summer, the future star even worked as a camp counselor. As Lee struggled do figure out what he wanted to do with his life, he began to become interested in performing. At first, Lee considered acting to be something to pass the time when he wasn’t at work. Eventually, he started to think of it as something he could do professionally.
As the legend goes, Lee Van Cleef was still working as an accountant when he was offered his very first professional gig as an actor. The sad thing was, the gig started the following Monday and Lee didn’t have time to give his real job two weeks’ notice. Lee felt so passionately about showing up for the gig that he didn’t pay any mind when his real job didn’t give him approval to take time off. When Lee didn’t show up for his accounting job, he was fired. Thankfully, Lee’s first gig as a professional actor would pave the way for many more, so the man didn’t have much to worry about. The future star’s first acting role may not have been much, but it lead to a big break. None other than legendary director Stanley Kramer saw Lee’s first appearance on the screen. Stanley was gearing up to film the now-classic Western High Noon, and he through that Lee would be the perfect fit for one of it’s villain roles.
Lee Van Cleef made only $500 a week during his time filming High Noon. However, the attention and acclaim that he received from the role was priceless. This came in spite of the fact that the character Lee played in the film didn’t even have a single line of dialogue. Lee played a henchman by the name of Jack Colby, and he managed to do more with his physical presence than most of the other performers in the film did with their spoken words. The actor’s appearance in the film led to Lee making a name for himself as a go-to actor when directors wanted to fill an intimidating role.
How Lee Van Cleef Made It in Hollywood
Over the course of the ensuing 1950s, Lee Van Cleef received plenty of work via films such as 1955’s The Big Combo. However, even more success would come the actor’s way in the 1960s. In 1965, Lee appeared alongside Clint Eastwood in the film For a Few Dollars More. The film was a sequel to A Fistful of Dollars, which turned Clint into a bit of an icon himself. The draw of For a Few Dollars More was to get the chance to see two Western heavyweights fighting side by side, and the film certainly made good on it’s promise. Both Lee and Clint were pretty big deals internationally before signing onto the picture, and it’s success made them more famous than ever before.
For a Few Dollars More was directed by Sergio Leone, and Lee Van Cleef would go on to work with both Sergio and Clint Eastwood again in the film’s sequel. Titled The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the sequel would be an even bigger success than either of the films that proceeded it. Today, the film is widely considered to be one of the most classic Western’s in cinematic history. The success of the film turned Lee into an all-out legend in his own time. Numerous pieces of media have been inspired by Lee’s appearance in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. One character that’s based on Lee is Revolver Ocelot from the video-game franchise Metal Gear Solid. Another character that was inspired by Lee is the character of Lucky Luke from the comic-book series The Bounty Hunter. Lee’s visage may not be parodied as often as Clint Eastwood’s, but it’s certainly plenty iconic.
Over the course of his career, Lee Van Cleef starred in two separate pictures that were nominated for Best Picture at their respective year’s Academy Awards ceremony. The first of these pictures was the aforementioned High Noon. A decade later, Lee appeared another Best Picture-nominated film with 1962’s How the West Was One. Regrettably, things started going downhill for Lee in his career by the time the 1970s rolled along. The last of Lee’s Westerns to be released was 1977’s Vengeance, though 1976’s God’s Gun was technically the last Western that the actor filmed. Both of these features saw the established Western icon playing second fiddle to Leif Garrett. Leif may have been the hot new thing at the time, but he was much younger and less experienced than Lee. This may have been why the actor decided not to film any more Western after the 1970s.
Lee Van Cleef’s Later Career
During the 1980s, Lee Van Cleef starred in a television series by the name of The Master. The series came on the air in 1984, and it saw Lee move from Western action to martial arts. Lee did pretty well in the role of a martial-arts hero, all things considered. Still, the series didn’t last very long. Notably, one episode of the series was titled “The Good, the Bad and the Priceless”, proving that what Lee was always going to be remembered best for was his role alongside Clint Eastwood in his classic Spaghetti Westerns.
Lee Van Cleef sadly didn’t get much notable work during the 1980s, and this fact is made even more tragic in retrospect when you consider some of the now-iconic roles that the actor narrowly missed out on. For one thing, the actor was considered for a significant role in John Carpenter’s The Thing. If he had been cast in the film, Lee would’ve played the character of M.T. Garry, who was the commander of the research station that the movie took place in. In the film proper, the role ended up being played by British actor Donald Moffat. Being cast in The Thing wouldn’t have done much for Lee’s career at the time, as the film was a box-office flop that was derided by critics. However, the film has since been reevaluated and is now considered to be one of the greatest films of the 1980s. Another notable role that Lee was almost cast in was that of Brad Whitaker in the 1987 James Bond film The Living Daylights. The role ended up being played by Joe Don Baker, who has appeared in several more Bond films in varying capacities since.
Lee was married three times over the course of his lifetime, and he had three children during his first marriage. At the time of his death in 1989, he was still married to his third and final wife. The cause of Lee’s death was listed as a heart attack, with throat cancer being noted as a secondary cause. At the time of his death, he was 64 years old. Several decades before his passing, Lee suffered a car accident that permanently affected him. This car accident occurred in 1958, and it caused a serious knee injury that nearly made it so Lee could never ride a horse again. Of course, this would’ve greatly affected his career as an actor in Western films. Lee ended up getting back on a horse only six months after the affliction, though the accident caused him pain that never abated until his death. The fact that Lee would become permanently injured by a mere car crash is ironic when you consider the fact that the actor escaped unscathed from active combat in World War II earlier during his life. He also lost the middle joint of one of his middle fingers during an attempt to build a tree house for one of his daughters.
Lee’s Career in the United States Navy
Lee Van Cleef began training to take part in the United States Navy in 1942. Pretty soon, he was a submarine chaser aboard a vessel by the name of the USS SC-681. During this time, it was Lee’s duty to hunt down U-boats from Germany. Eventually, Lee was given a position aboard a vessel by the name of the USS Invincible, and it was during his time on this vessel that the future star saw his most notable combat. As a result of his time on the USS Invincible, Lee was decorated with a Bronze Star, a Good Conduct Medal, and a World War II Victory Medal.
Lee Van Cleef survived through some hard times during his life, but it ended up being a simple car crash that left the most permanent mark. Now it’s time to hear from you: did you know that Lee Van Cleef saw active combat in the United States Navy during World War II, and that he was in pain for much of his career? Comment down below!