Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Lee Van Cleef Interview - European Trash Cinema - 1982

European Trash Cinema 21


    When I heard Lee Van Cleef was being brought in as
    one of the celebrities at an area golf tournament, 1 rushed
    to the phone to arrange an interview. Not only had Lee
    Van Cleef been my favorite actor for longer than I care to
    remember (did you drive fifty miles to see Death Rides A
    Horse at a drive-in?), I went so far as to pattern Nolan,
    the anti-hero of my first novel. Bait Money (1973), after
    the Van Cleef screen persona. That novel led to a series
    of Nolan novels; so, by interviewing Van Cleef, I’d be
    meeting one of ray heroes - in more ways than one. 

    Van Cleef's leading role in a local production of Heaven
    Can Wait back east led to a role in the louring company
    of Mr Roberts, which brought him to Los Angeles and to
    the attention of Stanley Kramer. The role that followed -
    in High Noon (Fred Zinneraann, 1952), which opens on
    his face - marked the first in a long line of memorable
    Van Cleef heavies in ’50s crime films and westerns. 

    With Neville Brand and Jack Elam he made up one third
    of the sinister trio who made John Payne’s life miserable
    in Kansas City Confidential (Phil Karlson, 1952); and he
    and Earl Holliman made Cornell Wilde’s life equally
    miserable in the haunting film noir. The Big Combo
    (1955), directed by Joseph L. Lewis, of Gun Crazy fame.
    An Indo-Chinese "commie" in Sara Fuller’s China Gate
    (1957) was a change of pace for Van Cleef from such
    typically menacing gunman types as those he portrayed in
    Gunfight At The OK Corral (John Slurges, 1957), Ride
    Lonesome (Budd Boetticher, 1959) and The Man Who
    Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962). Such minor, but
    memorable, roles made Van Qeef a virtual icon of the
    Hollywood western, undoubtedly leading to his
    breakthrough leading role in Sergio Leone’s Italian
    western. For A Few Dollars More (1965). 

    From this (and it’s 1966 follow-up. The Good, The Bad
    And The Ugly, in which he did not repeal his sympathetic
    bounty-hunter role but rather played perhaps his vilest
    villain, the 'bad" of the title) came stardom, and major
    roles in tailor-made Italian westerns, and many American
    films as well.

    At the time of this interview (Summer of 1982), he’d
    more recently been seen in the Chuck Norris film. The
    Octagon (Eric Karson, 1980), and Escape From New York
    (John Carpenter, 1981) in which he played opposite Kurt
    Russell, whose Eastwood-like performance troubled those
    critics not observant enough to get the in-joke.

    After a hot afternoon on the golf course, amid a hectic,
    harried, demanding schedule. Van Cleef - with only an
    hour to freshen up and drive crosstown to a live TV
    interview, half of that time to sit and chat with me
    about his films, with an ease and graciousness that belied
    his often-sinister screen image. A tall, rugged-looking man,
    more youthful in person than on the screen, Lee Van
    Cleef was an affable enigma - a no-nonsense "tough guy"
    riglit out of his movies - who in his spare time enjoys
    painting and art (a subject we unfortunately did not have
    time to explore). 

    He seemed vital and healthy, and the notion that he
    might be gone, in a few short years, never occurred to me.
    I’m glad I had the chance, however briefly, to meet with


    It seems to me you've kind of reversed the typical pattern -
    the Hollywood leading man usually ages gracefully into a
    character actor, but you’re a character actor who aged
    gracefully into a leading player. Was that something you set
    out to do? Or did it just evolve?

        LVC - Well, that depends on what you mean when you say"character actor." I mean, they’re all character actors, ailof ’em, leading men or whatever. So we’ve got a misnomer, there.

        Basically, everybody’s playing a character because we’re acting. So we’re doing somebody else, which is a character, and that’s characterization, right? You take the roles you like, or you take what you can get, it depends on the situation... if you can take what you like, fine, then you don’t take the things you don’t care to play. Now, I’ll play the heavy - or the villain, whatever you want to call it - I’ll play that just as fast as I’ll play a leading man. Again, it depends upon the script. It depends on the story.

    You’ve worked with a list of directors that sounds like the
    Director’s Hall Of fame - people like Raoul Walsh, Robert
    Wise, Samuel Fuller, Anthony Mann, John Ford, of course
    Sergio Leone. Not too long ago you worked with John
    Carpenter, on Escape From New York. How did working with
    him compare to working with the old pros?

        LVC - Beautiful ! Absolutely beautiful. He knew what he wanted; he got what he wanted. He had a manner of handling people that was absolutely beautiful. I felt like 1 was working with an old pro. He is a pro - the fact that he was younger, well... I respect the young.

    Speaking of directors, some of the movies you made in the
    1950s - which then might’ve been considered B movies or
    programmers - had directors like Budd Boetticher and Joseph
    E. Lewis, who’ve really come to be highly regarded in recent
    years. When you see a movie like Ride Lonesome or say. The
    Big Combo, being taken very seriously these days, do you
    think, "It’s about time we got some credit for the good work"
    or do you sometimes feel they’re coming back to haunt

        LVC - Haunt me? No, not at all. I feel the public is accepting mediocrity these days - and when you see the old movies, you see what it’s possible to do on a small budget. So it doesn’t haunt me. The only thing that hurts is the fact that they don’t have the quality in the new movies. Some of them do, I guess... but they’re the exception today.

    Well, The Big Combo has really gotten to have quite a
    reputation.  And the characters you and Earl Holliman played are
    considered classic heavies.
        LVC - I wasn’t aware of it. I didn’t know it made any kind of come-back.

    I've read that Clint Eastwood has said that the Man With
    No Name character in A Fistful Of Dollar (1964) and the
    other Leone movies was something he, to a degree, developed
    himself. And I wondered if the Man In Black character in
    For A Few Dollars More was something you developed
    yourself to a similar degree?

       LVC -   Well, when you read a script you try to visualize it. And when you go working with a director that doesn’t speak good English, nor do I speak Italian, you gotta kinda get along together. So I did what I wanted to do, and if he didn’t like it, he corrected me - that is, when I could understand him. And I really tried to. But we’d do it with gestures, and finally I began to learn a little bit of his language, and he mine. In fact, when we did the second one, when we did The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, we didn’t even use an interpreter on the set. As far as characterization is concerned, I don’t believe he ever changed any of my concepts.

    For example, the wardrobe - how much of that was your

    LVC - None. In fact, I balked on some of it. I thought it was a little outlandish, but I wasn’t used to this operatic Italian approach. I found after I got into it, after I was into the character and that sort of thing, I liked it. I liked the machismo. It was probably a little dressier than what may have been worn back then... I don’t know, I wasn’t around in 18-something. But I think it kind of fit the guy, and I began to enjoy what the Italians were doing, and the attitudes and everything that went into their filmmaking. They ultimately made a kind of western that we never made in the United States. The dirt and the crud and the nihilistic characters are something we avoided. If you look at some of the Errol Flynn westerns and some of the other ones —

    Very clean-cut.

   LVC - Yes. Precisely. They’re polished. They’re too sparkling clean. But the Italians brought the realism to the genre.

    Something else that seems to have come out of the Italian
    Westerns, is the dark humor, to various degrees.

   LVC - (Nodding) Yeah.

    It seems to me that even before the Italian Westerns, you
    always brought a certain land of wry, masculine sense of
    humor to what you were doing

   LVC - (Laughs) Perhaps I thought they were funny.

    This is a possibility. (Van Cleef laughs again.) But even in
    movies like Death Rides A Horse (Giuilo Petroni, 1969) and
    The Big Gundown (Sergio Sollima, 1968), there’s black
    humor; and then in the Sabaia films, besides the dark
    humor, there's a kind of "James Bond" spoofing.

   LVC - Yeah. Yeah. You caught it, because what we’re trying to do is more or less right on the borderline of tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes we went a little bit more than tongue-in-cheek, but it was on the borderline at least.

    In El Condor (John Guillerman, 1970) there’s even
    certain elements of slapstick humor—

   LVC - There’s a lot of comedy in El Condor. Almost slapstick. Yes.

    Even in a movie like Barquero (Gordon Douglas,
    1970), with you and Forrest Tucker, there’s a lot of
    humorous by-play going on.

   LVC - There was some by-play off the screen, too. If you ever worked with Forrest Tucker, you know what I mean, he’s quite a guy.

    So, is humor something you look for in a script?

   LVC - I do, because I look for more than one dimension in a character, I like to get humor, I like to get alittle sympathy going for him if I can - some script smake that virtually impossible - for instance, I don’t see much sympathy for my character in The Good,The Bad And The Ugly.

    But in For A Few Dollars More—

   LVC - In For A Few Dollars More you can find the synipatliy. But he wasn’t a heavy, either. He was just a bounty hunter.

    Getting back to the Sabata movies, for a minute - 1 know
    of two. Were there more?

   LVC - I only made two (Sabata, 1970; Return Of Sabata, 1972).
        Both were directed by Gianfranco Parolini.)

    Were there others in the series?

    LVC - There was another one that Yul Brynner did instead of me. (Adios, Sabata 1971)

    And, ironically, you did Yul Brynner’s character once, too.
    In a remake of Magnificent 7 {The Magnificent Seven Ridel,

    LVC - That’s absolutely right, I was getting around to that; everytime the Sabata movies are brought up I mention that. You were ahead of me. I didn’t like the script to the Sabata that Brynner did. So I turned it down —

    Was the Brynner Sabata movie also directed by Parolini?

   LVC - Yeah. He’s quite a stylish director. Gianfranco Parolini.But he signs his name as "Frank Kramer" to all his productions, enjoyed working with him.

    You’ve been one of the big box office stars in Europe for
    years. Are there many films made over there that haven’t
    been released here in the United States yet?

   LVC - There are quite a few. Although it’s very confusing.There’s a war story I don’t think has been released here. At least I’m not aware of it.

    Could that be Commandos? With Jack Kelly?

    LVC - Yes. I think that’s the title.

    {Editor note: Unfortunately, many Lee Van Cleef films
    remain unreleased on video in the United States, including
    such classic Spaghetti Westerns as The Big Gundown and

    Did you dub your own voice for the films you made in

    LVC - Yeah. I think I dubbed everything myself. Yeah, I’m sure of it.

    Let me ask you about Lee Van Cleef and posterity. Okay?

   LVC - (Laughs) Okay.

    You have been in a certain number of movies that by
    almost any yardstick are classics; in fact, your very first
    movie, High Noon, is generally considered one of the greatest.

   LVC - Yeah. It is.

    I don’t think anyone would argue that a John Ford movie
    like Liberty Valance is anything to take lightly; Gunfight At
    The OK Corral is a heavyweight; the two Leone movies are
    already considered classics. As I say, some of the
    programmers, too • you may be surprised to even consider
    The Big Combo —

   LVC - I’m still surprised about that one.

    Ride Lonesome, even Kansas City Confidential—

   LVC - I’d like to see that one come back; a cute little film.

    These are movies that are being talked about a lot. Have you
    ever reflected on the notion that a hundred years from now
    some people may be sitting and looking at your performances
    and enjoying them?

   LVC - If I’m still here. I’ll still be making ’em. I’m watching alt of films starring friends of mine who have passed away -the movies are still here, which makes them here, as far as I’m concerned.



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