One of the first faces to come to mind when you think of the phrase "Western villain", Clarence Leroy Van Cleef (January 9, 1925 – December 16, 1989) began acting in theater, playing small off-Broadway roles until he was cast in a touring company of Mister Roberts. From there, Van Cleef started out in film as one of the villain's henchmen in High Noon (a bit part he apparently got because the director thought he had an evil-looking face) and went on playing mooks in various Westerns and films noirs during the 1950s. Then his career gradually fizzled out, partly because he'd injured his leg badly in a car accident but likely also because he had a drinking problem. In the mid-'60s, Sergio Leone resurrected Van Cleef's career by giving him major supporting roles in For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which brought him to stardom in Europe. He continued to star in spaghetti westerns for much of his subsequent career.
Van Cleef reportedly claimed to be faster on the draw than Clint Eastwood in real life. A sequence at the climax of For a Few Dollars More shows him drawing, cocking and firing a gun in three frames of footage, which translates to roughly one-eighth of a second. He's also one of relatively few actors to appear in more than one movie on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (he was in both It Conquered the World and Master Ninja, the two 'movies' both being riffed on). He was missing the tip of his middle finger on his right hand, as a result of an attempt to make a playhouse for one of his daughters.
Of course, while he's most known for playing the main antagonist of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, he's also played heroic (or at least sympathetic) characters on more than a few occasions, including For a Few Dollars More and most of the other spaghetti westerns he appeared in.
Van Cleef's health began to decline in the late-1970s as he started suffering from heart disease, but in spite of this he continued his work as an actor until his death. He eventually passed away from a heart attack (with throat cancer listed as a secondary cause) in December 1989, at the age of 64.
Characters based on Van Cleef's appearance and/or the type of character he tended to play include Revolver Ocelot, Old Snake, Skull Face, Lee Scoresby, Cad Bane, Rattlesnake Jake, Jayne Cobb, Marshall Nathan Van Cleef, Edwin Vancleef, Elliot Belt, Arthur “Doc” McCoy, and Dutch van der Linde.
- High Noon (1952)
- The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
- Tumbleweed (1953)
- It Conquered the World (1956)
- Joe Dakota (1957)
- The Bravados (1958)
- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
- How the West Was Won (1962)
- For a Few Dollars More (1965)
- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
- Death Rides a Horse (1967; he preferred the Italian title, From Man to Man)
- Al Di La Della Legge (1968)
- The Sabata Trilogy (1969, 1971; in the first and third films of the trilogy)
- The Grand Duel (1972)
- God's Gun (1976)
- Escape from New York (1981)
- Master Ninja (1984)
- Armed Response (1986)
- Thieves Of Fortune (1990; his last film appearance)
His works provides examples of:
- Playing Against Type:
- Smoking Is Cool: Expect him to smoke a ciggie in plenty of his Western-themed films.
- Typecasting: Hero or villain, his characters were often cold and brooding.
- Villainous Cheekbones: His hawkish features meant he was cast as a lot of villains. Averted with Colonel Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More.