|Lee Van Cleef - The Best of the Bad|
|Back in the early 1940s Bridgewater and Raritan teenagers attended Somerville High School.
Unknown to them or anyone, one of their classmates, Lee Van Cleef, would go on to become a movie star appearing in 90 movies
and 109 television episodes.
Lee Van Cleef was no ordinary actor. For he had the definitive looks of a bad guy – with piercing eyes, a hawk like nose, and high cheek bones. While he often played the bad guy, he sometimes played a good guy too, but when he did that, he was usually a vigilante bent on revenge.
|Lee Van Cleef was born in Somerville in 1925. His childhood home was on North Bridge Street
(it still stands today).
Growing up in Somerville he worked as a delivery boy for Vaughn’s Meat Market. While in high school the U. S. entered World War II. Enthusiastic about serving his country, he would leave school midway through his senior year to join the Navy. (The school still gave diplomas to the boys who did that.)
|During the war he was assigned to a minesweeper - The USS Incredible - where he served as a sonarman.
In August 1944, his ship escorted a convoy that would land troops in southern France.
After that they stayed in the waters off France conducting minesweeping.
Later they headed toward the Pacific where they continued mine sweeping duties and participated in air sea-rescue operations.
|After the war Lee Van Cleef returned home living in the Brown Street apartments in Somerville with his wife
Patsy. While working as an accountant, a co-worker urged him to audition for the Clinton Music Hall Players production “Our Town”.
A natural actor, he won the lead role. With his acting skills obvious talent agents took him to audition for a play on Broadway. Soon after he landed a part in “Mister Roberts” with Henry Fonda. Again, he was noticed, this time by prominent film director Stanley Kramer who was putting together a cast for a movie that would come to be known as one of the greatest of all time – “High Noon” starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly.
|In “High Noon” Van Cleef would be given the role of one of the four bad guys who were looking to get
revenge on the marshal (Gary Cooper) who had sent one of them to prison years earlier.
Van Cleef’s role here, while significant, did not have any speaking parts. His looks were such that of the definitive bad guy that he is shown alone prominently in the beginning of the movie.
It is ironic that Lee Van Cleef’s first role on the screen would be so symbolic of his career. For he was an actor whose sinister face told the story much more than his dialog did. Toward the end of “High Noon” his character was killed by the good guy (Gary Cooper) in a gunfight. That often happened to the characters that Van Cleef played.
|After “High Noon” Lee Van Cleef had many acting roles.
He appeared often as the bad guy or villain in dozens of movies and as a guest star in dozens of television shows.
His early movie credits include “The Lawless Breed” (with Rock Hudson) and “The Conqueror” (with John Wayne).
As for television he was often the bad guy on shows such as Bonanza, The Untouchables, The Riflemen, The Lone Ranger, Riverboat, Wanted Dead or Alive, Have Gun Will Travel, and The Real McCoy’s. While he had important parts, he was not yet the main star of the show.
|Occasionally Lee Van Cleef’s character surprisingly turned out to be a good guy.
In the episode “The Old Flame” of Gunsmoke, he was initially thought to be a violent wife beater, but this time the mean looking guy turned out to be a good family man who was falsely accused.
He had a big part in a famous episode of the Twilight Zone - “The Grave”.
After a decade as an in-demand character actor Lee Van Cleef finally became a major star in 1965-66 when he was cast as the co-star, along with Clint Eastwood, in two movies “For a Few Dollars More” and the classic “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”.
These movies were known as “Spaghetti Westerns” named after their Italian Directors. These films had a comical side to them that had an appeal that gathered a core following of fans.
|For A Few Dollars More|
|As for “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” it is considered one of the best cult films of all time.
Three men compete to find a hidden stash of money. Clint Eastwood is “The Good”, Lee Van Cleef is, of course, “The Bad”, and Eli Wallach is “The Ugly”.
Not surprisingly, Lee Van Cleef is killed at the end - being out-drawn by Clint Eastwood in a gunfight.
The film has an incredible, unique, well-known soundtrack. The director’s use of close ups and far away visual shots were revolutionary for its era.
|Now a headliner, Lee Van Cleef would go on to star in several other films.
Many of these movies were spaghetti westerns - such as “God’s Gun” and “Death Rides A Horse”.
He now played a lot of heroic roles - always with a gun in hand.
In one movie “Commando” he played a commander who leads a World War II spy mission in Italy against the Germans.
In 1984, he starred in his own short-lived television show (13 episodes) “The Master” about an aging ninja master who helps people as he travels about.
In 1959 Lee Van Cleef was the featured guest in a parade to celebrate Somerville’s 50th Anniversary.
In the parade he rode atop a horse drawn carriage as he waved to the crowd of twenty thousand.
Even after he became a star, Lee Van Cleef still came back often to his hometown to visit his mother. It was said he took good care of her. For even when he was away, he made sure that groceries were delivered to her house.
|When visiting this area Lee Van Cleef would often socialize with the local people.
Many recall that he was quite pleasant and good to talk with.
However, a few stories have it that he was occasionally seen drunk. But tavern owner Anthony DeCicco of DeCicco’s in Raritan, said that Van Cleef visited on many Sundays (as the bars in other towns were closed back then) and he never had too much to drink. He was just glad to hang out and talk to people.
Lee Van Cleef would pass away in December of 1989 at the age of 64 at his home in California.
At his funeral many wore cowboy hats and western clothing in tribute.
Attending was Clint Eastwood who said that Van Cleef had one of the better faces on the screen - and that you cannot have a good protagonist without a strong antagonist.
Lee Van Cleef was indeed that.
An inscription on his grave reads “Best of the Bad”.
|The Raritan Library will be showing “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” on January 25th 2022, at 2 PM.
To reserve your spot, call them at 908-725-0413.