By Tony Phyrillas
September 9, 2019
Have you ever Googled yourself? Come on, admit it. Who hasn’t?
My name pops up in a lot of places on the Internet because I work for a newspaper and have been known to write a story or two. Or 5,000 or 6,000 … but who’s counting? I’ve also posted hundreds of my opinion columns online ... way back when I had the time to write columns.
Once in a while, my name pops up in the strangest places. Until recently, I had no idea that I was mentioned in a book.
It wasn’t exactly a best seller, but there I am on page 456 of “Actors of the Spaghetti Westerns” by James Prickette. I gotta hand it to Mr. Prickette for doing extensive research on the actors who appeared in a series of classic 1960s movies directed by the legendary Sergio Leone.
So how do I fit in with Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Sergio Leone? This is where I applaud Mr. Prickette for doing his homework.
I wrote an article way back in 1989 about actor Lee Van Cleef, who died of a heart attack that December at age of 64. While his name may not have been a household word, everyone who has ever watched Westerns will instantly recognize Van Cleef. It’s a face you won't soon forget.
He’s best known for the “Spaghetti Westerns” that were critical and box-office hits in the mid-1960s and made a star out of a little-known TV actor named Clint Eastwood. Van Cleef played Eastwood’s arch-rival in two of the films, “For A Few Dollars More” in 1965 and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” in 1966.
In the latter film, Van Cleef played “the Bad” of the title trio, with Eastwood (“the Good”) and Eli Wallach (“the Ugly”) handling the other two leads.
I wasn’t working for Variety magazine or The Hollywood Reporter at the time of Van Cleef’s death. Turns out the actor was a native of Somerville, N.J., and I was an editor at the Somerset Messenger Gazette, a community newspaper based in Somerville.
I was also the biggest Clint Eastwood fan around and everyone at the newspaper knew it. While I normally assigned stories to reporters, I decided to write about Van Cleef's untimely passing myself.
It was the first and so far the only opportunity to mention my favorite actor — Clint Eastwood — in a news story.
The article I wrote was titled, “Somerville remembers the good side of a ‘bad guy’” and I was able to track down several local residents who grew up with Van Cleef and remembered him fondly before he went off to Hollywood to make a name for himself in moving pictures.
Back to James Prickette and his book. The author billed the book as “A unique reference book, jammed full of informational tidbits about some of our favorite actors of the genre…”
And he certainly did find unique information, referencing the article I wrote in which I recounted that a young Lee Van Cleef wrote a column for The Messenger Gazette about his experiences in Hollywood. The newspaper featured many dispatches about Van Cleef as his career blossomed in television and eventually the big screen.
Not every small town can boast a well-known actor. Van Cleef would often write letters of thanks to The Messenger Gazette, expressing his gratitude for publicity about his acting career chronicled in his hometown paper.
Prickette used that anecdote and a few others from my article in his book.
So there you have it. A nearly 30-year-old article about Lee Van Cleef found its way into a book and immortality … as long as Google is around.
Tony Phyrillas is editor of The Mercury in Pottstown and remains a huge Clint Eastwood fan to this day.