By Jack Lloyd
September 6, 1970
Don’t be fooled by that rough, tough, eagle-beaked appearance of Lee Van Cleef. Forget about all those bodies he accounted for with his six-shooter in shoot-’em-ups ranging from “High Noon” to “El Condor.”
Lee Van Cleef is actually pretty soft.
Not nearly as rugged as those European filmmakers – mostly Italian – he has worked with in such spaghetti westerns as “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, “For a Few Dollars More” and the newest one “El Condor,” now at the Fox.
Van Cleef was recently recalling his European filmmaking experience while quartered in the comfortable Barbizon Plaza, overlooking New York’s Central Park, during one of his infrequent visits to the East.
The plush scene was in sharp contrast to the mountainous regions around Almeria, Spain, where much of Van Cleef’s location work has been conducted since he discovered gold in those hills.
And one can easily sympathize with the state of his chagrin – particularly if one has become softened by the ordinary conveniences of modern life – when Van Cleef swaggered out on the set during his first day of filming in Spain, shooting-iron strapped rakishly to his hip, and discovered that there was not a single restroom within miles of the place.
“Can you believe that?” Van Cleef said, still incredulous over this omission of plumbing (or something reasonably close). “They built this entire set, a complete western town, and not a restroom anywhere. It just never occurred to them. They just go and find a cactus bush or something. But that kind of thing wasn’t for me.”
And so Van Cleef made such a howl of protest that the crew finally located a suitable plot of Spanish real estate and constructed a private outhouse for the American actor.
“I took a lot of kidding over that,” he said. “They even painted a sign for it: ‘Van Cleef’s Place.’ But that didn’t bother me. It got me my restroom.”
Van Cleef and ex-New Jersey farmer and former Maine hunting and fishing guide – concedes that he has lost a little of his zest for the outdoors life since reaching his middle 40s.
But soft? Well, not really. He is still built like a dock worker with a handshake that is ideal for crunching walnuts.
However, his manner is gentle, the smile comes quickly and his conversation is gregarious and good-natured.
Everything is going Van Cleef’s way now. Thanks to the Italian-made-westerns, he is set financially for the rest of his life, and talks knowingly about special contract arrangements that provide the maximum amount of income.
“The important thing for actors today is to get a good business manager,” Van Cleef said. “I have one of the best. He’s a specialist in real estate and I have pieces of hotels all over the country. I don’t own them, but I have pieces of them.
“There’s all kinds of red tape and tax problems. And so you have to get yourself a good business manager – if you’re making $100,000 a year or up, that is. Otherwise forget it.”
Van Cleef isn’t forgetting it, which gives you some idea of the kind of money he’s made out of these rip-snorting westerns that have been greeted with such enthusiastic response by American movie-goers and outright contempt by most domestic film critics.
TIME OF CRISIS
And it is a sweet turn of events for Van Cleef, whose career was at a crisis stage back around 1965 despite a long list of Hollywood credits including “High Noon,” “Gunfight at OK Corral”, “The Nebraskans,” “Ten Wanted Men,” “The Vanishing American,” “The Young Lions,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “How the West Was Won.”
Just prior to getting the call from Sergio Leone to star in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” Van Cleef pointed out, “I couldn’t even pay my phone bill. It was a bad time.”
Van Cleef has nothing but admiration for the artistic style of Leone and other Italian movie people he has worked with during the past few years. He feels that they are now combining their artistry with the technical knowhow developed by the American film industry.
As for the abundance of violence in every possible shape and form that overflows in the spaghetti westerns, Van Cleef feels this is being blown out of proportion.
“It seem to me you find plenty of violence in American movies,” he said. “I remember the blood quirting all over Monty Cliff’s face in ‘The Young Lions.’ Seems to me that was pretty violent stuff.”
While certain adjustments in work habits and philosophy were required when Van Cleef first went to Europe, he has adapted completely to the pace.
“Everything is much more relaxed,” he said. “For instance, they usually shut down on shooting between 1 and 4 so that they can go and spend some time with their mistresses. Then they come back on the set and work until 7 or 8.”
And there are no hassles with the various unions that frequently complicate filmmaking in this country.
“The attitude there is also easy-going,” he noted. “If there’s something heavy that has to be moved, for instance, everyone pitches in, including actors. You could never get away with that in Hollywood.”
Aside from his role as actor, Van Cleef also contributed to the authenticity of the Italian-made westerns as a technical advisor of sorts.
“They went to a great deal of trouble building those western towns,” he said. “But I recall looking around the first day and seeing these neatly-painted signs – bank, sheriff, saloon and such.
“The trouble was each of the signs was exactly alike. The same color, the same size of print. And plenty of misspellings. I wrote out some signs for them and they painted them all over again, using different paint and printing style. And the spelling was correct.
“Only for some reason or other, there was a hyphen between every letter on every sign. They went through it all over again. And everything was fine – except that now they had fallen in love with drugstores. There were drugstores all over the town. Even side by side.”
Van Cleef never did get the various irregularities straightened out completely. But he figures those that remained were never noticed anyway.
The actor was quite a bit more persistent, though, when it came to his rest room.