What Makes a Western Villain: Lee Van Cleef

Lee Van Cleef

Van Cleef knew he was a born villain even if Hollywood didn’t. Stanley Kramer had seen the former CPA (yes, just like Jack Elam) on Broadway, in Mister Roberts, and offered him the role Lloyd Bridges would eventually play in High Noon. “He said, ‘But I want you to fix your nose.’ Well, my nose is kind of a trademark with me. They call me Hawk-Nose on every set I get on. So, I told him –” let’s just say he said ‘no’, “– so that was the end of that interview. He called me back the next day and wants me to play a heavy. So that was my first picture.”

Even with no dialogue, his scowl and unblinking eyes made him frightening. Still, it would take 150 more appearances, usually supporting a higher-billed bad guy, before Van Cleef received the career-changing phone call on the very day in 1965 when his phone was about to be shut off for non-payment.

It was director Sergio Leone, offering him the second lead in For a Few Dollars More. How do you play antagonist to an anti-hero? He did it by making his Col. Douglas Mortimer even more ruthless and gleefully greedy than Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. And he doubled down a year later as bounty killer Angel Eyes in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, whose perverse code of honor let him double-cross and kill client after client, as long as he delivered value for money. Ironically, he was too good at being bad to stay that way and became a hugely successful hero in Spaghetti Westerns.

Of all those grand Western villains, only Bruce Dern is still with us. Van Cleef is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in the Hollywood Hills, beneath an unpretentious marker, which reads: Lee Van Cleef, Jan. 9, 1925 – Dec. 16, 1989. “Best of the Bad.” It’s a fitting epitaph for them all.


About Henry C. Parke

Henry’s new book, The Greatest Westerns Ever Made, and the People Who Made Them, published by TwoDot, is now available. The Brooklyn-born, L.A.-based writer has contributed articles to the INSP blog since 2016, been Film Editor for True West since 2015, and has written Henry’s “Western Round-up,” the online report on Western film production, since 2010. His screenwriting credits include Speedtrap (1977) and Double Cross (1994). He’s the first writer welcomed into the Western Writers of America for his work in electronic media. He’s done audio commentary on nearly thirty Spaghetti and domestic Westerns.