LEE VAN CLEEF
The following interview appears in the Book, BAD AT THE BIJOU by William Horner. It is part of his chapter on Lee Van Cleef. It is a great history of film villains.
.....I raised the subject of his career as a top-notch heavy, and learned surprisingly that Lee Van Cleef did not view his body of work as a series of violent spectacles. I suggested his naval service in both theaters of World War II undoubtedly offered numerous models for some of his screen roles and ordeals. Rather than his films' being an extension of combat experience, however, he categorized them primarily as outdoor adventures. "I think perhaps the only resource that I've got," he said of preparatory groundwork, "goes back to my childhood, because most of the films that I do are of an outdoor nature. And I was raised in the outdoors. I went on my first canoe trip when I was two years old. My dad and mother took me up the Raritan River, and I'm squattin' in the middle of a canoe. I can still remember that. Since then, I went to camps and all those things that a guy goes through in childhood. I was a Boy Scout. I didn't make Eagle, because I was too busy doing swimming, lifesaving and archery, things of that nature, and training other guys in the same area instead of paying attention to my own advancement.
"But I never got out of the woods, in a manner of speaking. I worked on farms after the war. One of the first jobs I had when I got out of the Navy was working in a hunting and fishing camp up in Maine, trying to get it ready for their season. I've always been outside, so that's got a helluvalot to do with it."
"So your background in Somerville, New Jersey, where you were born, was farming?" I asked.
"Farming? Yes, but when my three kids started coming into the world, my first wife and I just didn't have enough money, so I had to go working where more money was than on a farm. So I went to work in a plant, believe it or not, as a time study methods and motions analyst. I'd never said I'd work indoors in my life. I swore I wouldn't, but I did."
"How did you become an actor?"
"Accidental" Van Cleef chuckled. "There was a guy there that said come on out to the country in Clinton, New Jersey, which is kind of the home of little theater. So I went out there with him one night and tried out for a part-and damn if I didn't make it! And that thing was `George' in Our Town. And the second one I did out there was `Joe Pendleton,' the boxer in Heaven Can Wait.The director of Heaven Can Wait took me into New York to see if I should start studying dramatics, because he had kind of a, you know, good thoughts about me. I said, `Oh, come on!' ... because I didn't have acting in mind as a profession. Anyhow, I went into New York with him, to Maynard Morris in the MCA office, and he sent me over to the Alvin Theater on 52nd Street. There was about five hundred guys ahead of me-but damn if I didn't end up with a part. In Mister Roberts! Out of a plant I did ... you know ... I just changed my whole lifestyle. "I was in the national company. I didn't play it in New York. We rehearsed it there, and Hank Fonda joined us-which made our company number one-and I played in Mister Roberts on the road for fifteen months. Then we headed out here, producer Stanley Kramer sent me a telegram, I went on an interview, and I got into High Noon. That was my first show."
"Since you had been a farmhand, I suppose you were already a horseman, weren't you?"
"No, not really," Van Cleef said, "because it wasn't horses in Somerville. It was tractors and trucks on the farm. I didn't know beans about a horse until I got into film. As soon as I knew I was gonna be in High Noon when I came out here to California, then I got a guy that was in the stage play with me to go to a riding stable, and he taught me. everything I knew, at that point in time. We went out ever blood day from sometime early in August until September 15,1951, when I started to work. He had me doin' every kind of mount, dismount, run, walk, or any otherdarn thing on a horse, so that I could finally do the job properly in High Noon. And that guy that got me goin' on a horse, his name is Rance Howard, Ron and Clint Howard's father."
"Did you do a lot of the formal study associated with stagecraft while you were in the theater?" I asked. "Shakespeare? Dance?"
"I `sharpened my tools' is the way I like to put it. I haven't studied Shakespeare because I don't like the Shakespearean style. But I have studied swords, I studied dance, voice, all the physical things I ever found I needed."
"Was this with the American Academy of -?"
"No-o-o," Van Cleef interjected, "not with any academy. Just on my own. I went to the people that knew the stuff, and took private lessons."
"Do you not think formal study, training in the 'method' and so forth, are important to make a good actor?"
"I don't believe in what they call method acting. I don't know," he said, choosing his words carefully; "I don't believe in it. It could be good for some actors, but it's not good for me. As far as I'm concerned, method acting confuses audiences more than it tells them anything, and I think if you entertained them instead of confusing them, you'd get better results. Acting is a twisted up subject. I think to project yourself into another dimension, and then to make dimensions within the dimensions . . I think that's an art form the same as music or painting or anything else. Or writing, in a sense, because even though you didn't write the original lines or ideas, to bring them to life is as much a form of art as the original thing. Anybody that can do the acting should be able to do the writing. In a lot of those European films, for example, I've done a lot of my own dialogue changes just to make it more compatible with my manner of speech, and my patterns, shall we say. I've never changed their ideas, just the way to say them or carry them out. Sometimes I even drop lines. Most actors like to add lines. They think the more they have, the better off they are. Bullshit! Sometimes I'd rather just use my eyes, use my face."
"More on that later," I forewarned. "But first, how did that longstanding stereotype as a villain get started? Was it doing the gunman in High Noon that locked you in place?"
"You're right. It started with High Noon, and that was it."
"You were one of Hollywood's biggest heavies all the time your three children were growing up. How did they handle that?"
"They handled it beautifully. Beau-tifully! No problem."
"Was Daddy always the hero when he got home?" I joked, a notion that amused him.
"I'd like to think so!" he laughed, then reflected soberly. "But ... sometimes I wasn't even here for them. I'd be away on a job. I wasn't a heavy at home, but I wasn't a hero. I don't pretend to be a hero anyplace except perhaps on film. I believe in other dimensions. Now, my kids are kind of proud of what I did, so ... everything turns out well."
"During those early years, was the chain of heavies completely unbroken?" I asked.
"Oh no. I did other things, but they were never recognized too much. Like, I did a guest-lead in 'The Medic,' that program Dick Boone starred in. I played a doctor in an episode called, I think, Day Ten, about the plague epidemic in L..A. back in the thirties."
"Frankly," I said, "while I've seen many of your films, what comes across in hindsight is not individual roles or movies so much-that is, prior to your move to Europe-as an overall impression of characters like the one you did in Posse from Hell. To me, he was the typical Van Cleef style villain, a man so dangerous as to be almost infernally powered, a dreadfully bad human being. As the film opened, the outlaws strode into a saloon. Your character approached a milquetoast at the bar and without any warning proceeded to grab a whiskey bottle out of his hand. Unaccustomed to such rudeness, the man resisted. You matter-of-factly unsheathed a knife and cut his hand, a show of unadulterated spitefulness that totally disarmed him, and your icy stare propelled him clear across the room. Later, when the posse had ridden you down and gut-shot you, you begged them not to let you die there in the desert, claiming, `Yew cain't leave me like this! Yer Christians, aintcha?I' It was the sorriest soul demanding mercy he, himself, would never have extended. He was the worst of bad eggs; in his malice, a step beyond your more common villains. How did you manage to project such heinous characters during those years, most of them seemingly motivated by an invincible evil?"
"Mmmmmnh!" Van Cleef flinched. "I despised that film, for some reason. I don't know exactly why, but every time it comes on tv, I turn it off. But I've liked other ones. In fact, I haven't got one other one that I don't like.
"But the thing about playing a heavy is don't make yourself so completely invincible. That's what I've been trying to do with every damn picture since I knew what I was doing. I don't want to be so completely invincible, because I don't think that's human. You want to see a guy down on his knees cryin' for mercy, I did a picture called The Bravados with Gregory Peck, Henry Silva, Stephen Boyd ... a lot of good ones in that one-where I was gonna get Peck, but he came around from the other direction, had his gun on me, there was nothing I could do. We went through that thing where he was showing me a picture of his wife in ' a watch, I swore I didn't know anything about it, he didn't believe me, and he plugged me right in the head. Shot me dead away." (In The Bravados, Albert Salmi, Henry Silva, and Van Cleef were the central heavies; a white man, an Indian, and a half-breed. They were already arrested for capital crimes, had been convicted, faced the noose, broke jail, and circumstantial evidence pointed to them as the rapistkillers of Gregory Peck's wife. Peck tracked down the white man [Salmi] and half-breed [Van Cleef] and slew them in horrendously moving scenes. Not until the end of the picture, when Peck learned his wife's real murderers had been caught, was there any reason to credit the tortured cries of innocence from the two men just before they were killed. The bad taste left by The Bravados' executions-of guilty men, but for the wrong crime-was as strong as that left by those of innocent men in The Ox-Bow Incident.)
"I think I grew up a little with The Bravados," I conceded, "and for a piece of supportive acting, that may have been your finest. It was probably the flrst time I'd ever taken pity on a bad guy about to get blown away, something that had always seemed an entirely appropriate action beforehand."
"That's what I look for in fllm," Van Cleef declared. "Some place to have a bit of sympathy-not pity-but sympathy; so that the audience feels they're almost-almost, I say-as much on your side as they are on the leading man's. Once I learned what I was doin', which only took a picture or two, I tried to flnd some extra dimension to every character, a sympathetic area. Now, right or wrong, I've done that all these years. It gives you another thing to do. Sometimes you don't find 'em. But if you can, and use them, it helps; like patting a child on the head, instead of kickin' him in the ass. Never hurt a dog. I don't kick dogs. I don't pound women. I haven't slapped a woman yet on screen."
"You did that in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," I contradicted.
"That was done by a stunt man, not by me, because I refused to do it. The girl wanted to be slapped, actually slapped. I'm six-feet two, weigh around one-ninety, two hundred, I'm fairly well put together. I've got a heavy hand, and I don't like to do things that could possibly hurt somebody, in any way."
"Playing the villain, is there anything special you consciously do to act malicious in a role?" I asked.
"Nnnn-no," he pondered, "I just believe what I'm doing, and have a respect for the other guy; and I've got to do it that way, it's as simple as that.
"And," he added, "I'm playin' three guys: myself, the character that I've read ... and that last guy in the balcony lookin' down at me. It's like bein' in three places at once. You're you, you're playin' the character
-that makes two, right there-then, the guy that's watchin' it, so that you're able to actually see what you're doin' ... just like I'm lookin' into this microphone, right now. There's a point for anybody to learn from," he offered circumspectly.
"Since the invention of motion pictures," I said, "the Code of the West followed by so many of the traditional Western heroes has played some real part in the moral upbringing of three generations. As a villain, did you ever see yourself in a pedagogical Function; that by the way you presented your character, you could turn young people off to that kind of person, and the wrong things he was doing?"
"That's ... a pretty good way to put it," Van Cleef said, mulling the notion over. "I think that's a very good way to put it," he concluded.
"I have felt that the hero in a picture-if it's me, I want it to be a little bit of both ways-but if it's somebody else, say a Gene Autry or Jock Mahoney, Roy Rogers or whoever you want to say ... whatever I did as a heavy, I did as heavy as I could; then the other guy is that much stronger. And that's the way it should be, cause he's gotta win in the end. You know that. It's necessary to be as strong as possible in a fight scene or a gunfight or whatever, so the other guy comes out properly, even though I still tried at times to get a moment of sympathetic area doing the thing. I did the same thing as a hero, played it as strong as possible. I'm not in any way against violence if it's justified. I have played the bad guy, and enjoyed playing the bad guy ... but let the justification tear-me-down! Or, build me up, in case I'm the hero."
"In addition to The Bravados, was there anything else you did back then as a character heavy that you were particularly proud of?" I asked.
"I think that prior to the European move," he considered, "the things that I think about, more often than anything else that happened in ' major films back there, are the television jobs. There was a lot of good ones on there, even though it was made cheap and fast; and I enjoyed workin' with Bill Williams, and with Jock Mahoney ... uh ... darn! I can't think of all their names, so maybe I'd better not mention any more. But those things were really a great school for me. I learned from all of them, and I think I did some damn fine stuff."
"You spent half your career as a character actor before making your own films. I'm sure, like most actors, you had your lean times," I judged, "but would you do it all the same, if you could do it over?"
"Most definitely." Van Cleef's smooth, deep voice returned with hang tough resignation. "The only regrets I've got is the unhealthiness that can come out of idleness."
"What was your longest dry spell?"
"Oh, boy!" he groaned. "That's a good question. I don't know exactly what the length of the period was, but I think the worst one I had was just before the advent of the Italian Westerns."
"And how did they come about?" I questioned. "What led you to making pictures over there?"
"Money! Mun-nee!" he enunciated. "I'll admit it to you. I was broke. I couldn't pay my phone bill, and it wasn't all that big. They offered me more money than I ever made on any picture, and that's what started it. It was Sergio Leone who came over and said, I want you to do a thing. So I did it. It was the first one I did with Clint Eastwood, For a Few Dollars More. I left April the l2th,1965; then exactly one year later I left on the second one, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. That went back- ' to-back with The Big Gundown where I starred on my own, instead of with Clint, and .:. it's been goin' like that ever since. Goin' to the airport gettin' on a plane, jumpin' one, two, six or twelve hours-maybe twenty hours-to one place or the other. I kept an apartment in Rome for a while at one point when those pictures were comin' so fast and furious. But I live here right now, basically, and I hope to stay that way."
"Are you still making films in Europe, though?"
"I'm making films wherever they're being made. Whether it's here, Israel; the Canaries, Spain, Italy, Yugoslavia-it doesn't make a damn bit of difference where they're made. It's an international business, everybody will eventually see what's done, and that's what the point is. It's not just makin' it in California. Bullshit! You gotta make 'em where they're bein' made. Unfortunately," he said with concern, "there's not enough being done here. We've got to somehow or another springboard the situation in this country. In the foreign countries, they get help. The government helps them. The government isn't helping anything here, in that regard. I think if they followed the examples of Italy or Spain, with tax rebates or whatever ... then there would be more money to make a picture and start another, and you can keep goin' from there. That's why the film industry in Europe is so much better than it is here."
"In a sense," I remarked, "Sergio Leone gave your career a second start, didn't he?"
"Well, you can't actually say it was a renewal in the business," he corrected. "It was just, thank God, I hung on and didn't go into something else, try to get a job diggin' ditches. This business, my friend, is ups and downs all the way for everybody. You don't know you're going to do anything until you're there with script in hand, in wardrobe, makeup, and you're in frnnt of the camera and it's rollin'. Then you know you've got the job. And it's climbin' that ladder slowly, drop a couple of rungs and gain three. The best thing somebody can do is make the right kind of investments along the way when you do have it, so that you've got something to fall back on, and make sure you know how to do something else. I'm sure most actors do. I'd hate to see Charlie Bronson go back to the coal mines, because he's too damn good where he is. I don't want to go back to the farms, either. I wasn't that good a farmer. If I had to do something else-which I don't think I will-I'd go into another art form, or some other area within the business. But when Leone invited me over to Europe the first time, that was more money than I'd made on any show here. Everything's relative; there's a fourteen year difference, 1951 to 1965, but ... hell, my per diem, just the living expenses they gave me was as much as I made on my very first picture, the whole salary."
"That name `Angel Eyes' in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; was that tailor-made specifically for you?" I asked.
"If it was in the script, I didn't see it," Van Cleef recalled, "and I'm usually pretty careful about giving scripts a close reading. I think Clint came out with it one day. It just kind of sprung out, and it was used ever since. I made no complaints about it. They've referred to me as that quite often in publicity since that time. I thought it was pretty good."
"Absolutely," I agreed. "How long did it take to make that film, by the way? Wasn't your typical Italian Western a rather fast piece of work?"
"Well, yes, in comparison to, say, Cleopatra or Brando's Mutiny on the Bounty, or some of those others which took many months, perhaps even over a year, the European jobs generally run anywhere from eight weeks to twelve. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly only took thirteen weeks. But that's just shooting time," he stressed. "That's not preparation time; and all the post-production, which can take any length of time, six months or more to get all the little fine details of sound and editing in there they want. And Leone did all his own stuff in those days."
"Then they couldn't be called `quickies'?"
"No. I've done pictures over here back in the fifties-my God, I'm not gonna tell you the titles of the darn things because I don't want to remember 'em. But in two or three weeks time we did two feature length pictures and parts of three different television shows. That was the fastest bunch of scramblin' that I've ever been on. In the old days, also, in the half-hour tv shows we'd do threea week, jumpin' from one script to another. All within one day I would have changed wardrobe maybe fourteen or fifteen times and bounced back and forth from one script to another many, many times within that period. With the hour shows, we'd get one done in five or six days. Sometimes they'll give a week and a half to that, now."
"What were your working conditions there, as far as language went. Did everyone speak English?"
"No. Not then. Everybody speaks English now, for the most part. For your somewhat better films, your major actors do speak English now, mostly; unless they're in there doin' somebody a favor and won't speak anything but their own tongue, which I think they're making a mistake , there. And in some of your cheapies now, they won't. But in the old days-well, I say the old days, it was fourteen, fifteen years ago and ` before that-everybody would be speaking in their own tongue. Leone couldn't speak English to begin with. He speaks it very well now, but in the first picture he could hardly speak it at all, and we had an interpreter on both of the pictures I did for him. There was one scene in For a Few Dollars More that I was in where there were five languages spoken: Greek, Italian, German, Spanish, and a Cockney Englishman that I couldn't understand any better than I could understand the Greek! But I got along in it, because I knew what everybody was supposed to be saying in English by my script. So, when they'd stop speakin', then I would say something. Also, I began to pick up some of the Italian and Spanish which was prevalent over there."
"Did any of your fellow actors ever express or hint at any resentments towards you, as an American on a European set; as if to suggest you had taken the job away from a more deserving local" I asked.
"No, I never felt it," Van Cleef said. "I think that the people in the know, they understand that as well as an art, it's an international business and a money game. Because it's international, you have people with different nationalities in damn near every film today. Even American ' producers will go over to Europe to get money to pre-sell a picture. As a consequence, to get this money, they may sometimes have to take actors and technicians from the countries they're negotiating with-or I'm sure : in a lot of cases, they want to take them, because there's a lot of fine people abroad. So, if you're going to make a film anywhere, and you're going to want money from Italy, money from Spain, from Mexico, from Canada, then they will own a film for their particular areas, or however you negotiate it-there's no two alike-and you've got people from all over the world in one fllm.
"But we got along fine. No problem at all. You'd be surprised how many over there do speak English now, cause the actors have had to learn. It wasn't that way before. I'd usually pal around with somebody who commanded both English as well as the tongues of anybody there around me. The stunt man I had over there for quite some time spoke English very well, and both Spanish and Italian. My wife speaks a little bit of Spanish, too, and I speak enough Italian now to make myself understood.
"With the actors, it was no problem whatsoever. Somebody'd be around who could interpret if the goin' got a little bit thick. I've never had any problem in Europe or any place else I've been, except perhaps with producers; once in a while, a little bit of a tangle with a director. But if he could speak English well, and I could make my point clear enough and he agreed with it, then he'd do it my way. Otherwise I'd go ahead and do the best I could with it his way, unless I was totally against it. Then I just refused to do it, and that only happened once or twice. I don't like to infringe on another guy's territory unless it directly involves me, but there was one show over there, one of the early ones after I finished with Leone, and I directed myself all the way through the damn thing. I just couldn't take the director's directions. On occasion I even had to correct him on riglzt and left, and where to set lights."
"On the other side of the coin," I asked, "were you ever treated with a certain deference, stemming from the fact that compared with your co-stars, your career has made you a bonafide veteran of the cowboy genre?"
"Well, sometimes I'd get the feeling they looked up at it, and sometimes I'd get the feeling they were wonderin' when I was goin' to fall off my horse, if ever. You know, you get that negative feeling every once in a while, even though there's no reason for it, that they're just waiting for you to make a mistake. Sounds like I walk around with a lot of confidence, I guess." Van Cleef laughed self-consciously. "But I haven't fallen flat yet. And I most often got the feeling that I was respected, and I got nothing hut that. What went on behind my back, I'm not all that certain. But up in the foreground, I got all the respect that any one man can handle."
"Some of those pictures you made over there have been out long enough to make it to television. Do you ever watch yourself in them, or in any of the old reruns or the older pictures-excepting Posse from Hell, of course?"
"Liberty Valance was on just the other night here. The only reason I didn't see it again is I've seen it so many times already. I'll watch a picture if I liked it, on an overall basis-whiclz is what I aim at. I don't aim at pointin' myself up. I aim at a good picture overall, which I think Liberty Valance was. When it comes to film work-at least the ones that I'm in-whether I'm playin' the heavy or the lead, I don't give a damn. I just want the picture to be direct, I want the people to understand it, and I want 'em to go home satisfied."
"I get the impression from a fairly crowded list of pictures covering the last ten years," I said, "that you belong among those performers who like to call themselves `working actors.' That is, sometimes you will accept an assignment for the sake of staying in the game, keeping the creative juices flowing."
"Well, yeah, but I don't do it at the risk of dropping quality," Van Cleef retorted. "That's why I stick to motion pictures. If I do end up doing television, it would be because the script is damn good and there is room for good characterization in the thing for as long as the program will go. I pick and choose. I don't work for the sake of working. I don't believe in that. I've got otherthings I do to keep my juices flowing-and I'm not talkin' about beer and alcohol! My home takes a lot of creativity. I've got juices flowin' all over the place here, between the painting and woodworking and the rest. I paint. I write scripts and songs. I sing and play music. My wife Barbara is very musical. She's a concert pianist. She can solo, accompany; even play clubs, because she not only does the classical, but she can go into darn near any area of music on the piano. I've picked up on music along the way in my career, but I concentrated on it pretty hard in school, too; played trombone and sang. As a little child I played piano. Now I just fool around with a guitar to aid me in creating songs. I sketch a lot. I paint in oils and acrylics; landscapes, primarily seascapes .. and figure. Female form." He owned cheerily, "I'm still healthy."
"Obviously you have plenty to keep you occupied within the confines of your home," I said. "But when you do venture out, can you move about freely in public, here or abroad? Your rather unique features, after all, have been seen far and wide, and had impact over a long career both as the rugged villain and sturdy hero."
"I don't like to get out too much," he said. "I like going out to supper, or something like that; but I don't like to get out into crowds, like going to Disneyland or Knott's Berry Farm, or such places. On a street in Rome, I don't seem to worry about it too much. The only thing that bothers me over there is the paparazzi. They bug the hell out of me."
"Did your presence in a restaurant or bar ever spark a hostile reaction from somebody out to prove his manhood?" I asked.
"Ho, ho, ho-o-o-o! You better know it! It's happened more here than in Europe, but it has happened there. Not in Italy. Only once in Spain, once in the Canaries; that was it. The rest of it's been in California, but not really all that much, and more often in bars than restaurants.'
"How do you handle somebody who's forcing that screen machismo on the real you, in the middle of a drink or dinner?" I inquired.
"Try to talk out of it," he said. "If you can't talk out of it-then you back it up."
"You mean, quietly leave?"
Van Cleef's voice leveled out. "Bill, I've never started a brawl. You try to quietly leave, but if it doesn't happen, then ... you know what you've gotta do."
"You've had to do it."
"Yes," he declared. "Yes. That doesn't mean that I'm proud of it. But I've had to do it."
I backtracked. "You said before that you wanted your films to be direct, and you wanted people to understand them, and to go home sati
"Yeah, I want 'em to go home satisfied that they've seen somebody do the best job they can. That's not just me. That's anybody I'm in the picture with. And I want 'em to go home entertained. In other words, I don't like disappointments, you know, walkin' out of the theater that way. I don't go back quite as soon."
"But surely you recognize there are other kinds of satisfaction outside of happy endings," I argued. "Wouldn't you be willing to go out on a limb in a picture, do something a little bit elliptical, something that isn't straight line adventure, with all the traditional factors involved?"
"Well, yeah, certainly," Van Cleef replied. "Naturally, it would depend on the script. There again, I'm after good material. Maybe I said it in a way that could be misunderstood, but when I say 'direct,' I mean simple and to the point, without too many complications within a character, so that you don't know where the character is ... or where he `comes from,' I think is the modern way of saying it. There's gotta be a solution to a thing. I've seen too many free-form type endings where there's absolutely no solution to it at all! There was one on television here the other night about a car theft ring. It had some pretty fair chases in it and all that sort of thing, but after all the devastation, the guy gets away scot free at the end. The bad guy got away with it and rode out of the picture with his girl or something ... or at least with the car. Maybe the car represented his girl, I don't know. We find things like that hidden in some of these stories, too."
"In your opinion, then, justice must prevail?" I asked.
"Not necessarily `justice'," he said, putting a finer point on it. "I think the truth should. If a thief gets away with it, let him not be trafficking in the wrong stuff. Let's not show the rapist ormurderer getting away with it-unless it's some kind of documentary you're filming but neither one of those. Otherwise, I don't want to be involved."
"It seems your presence on film has provoked strong reactions from the critics," I posed. "On the positive side, several have expressed admiration for you as an actor; but by arid large, few have been able to find kind words for the type of pictures you've done since striking out on your own. The general tone of the reviews-even when favorable to you, personally -is scornful of what you described as your outdoor adventures'."
"I don't think the critics know what the hell they're talking about sometimes," Van Cleef shot back. "I don't see anything wrong with a good honest approach in a film, and a good deal of feeling that somebody's put into it. I don't see anything wrong with that at all. No, I don't believe in the critics. Usually when they get negative, they bring in more people to the show than they turn away."
"The lack of critical acclaim doesn't bother you?"
"I don't think there was any lack of critical acclaim, on the Leone pictures. Some of the others," he warranted, "I can understand ... but I don't agree with! I don't believe in an awful lot of what the critics do. This local newspaper we've got here in Los Angeles knocked the hell out of me on pictures that I think were damned good. El Condor, for instance, where I played kind of a humorous heavy. They really wanted to knock that one out of the box! But nevertheless, it came out, and people have enjoyed it."
"One reason for the opprobrium your pictures have drawn, obviously, is the prevalent violence in their content," I stated, "something we're finding universally condemned lately in movies and television. The theory goes, of course, that imitations of-that buzz word-violence, by actors, would leak out into the surrounding society in the form of real criminal acts."
"Yeah, I understand you," Van Cleef responded wearily.
"Suppose, hypothetically, you were hauled before the P.T.A. or some other anti-violence-in-media group, and in some kangaroo court scenario, you were prosecuted for your work in films. What would be your defense? Would you just tell them to frig off?"
"Besides sayin' that," he laughed, "I would just say basically, '1 am an actor; and I will do goddamn near anything, as long as it doesn't go against my grain. And that would include belting women, kicking dogs, or hurting children. I won't do things of that nature'."
"Have you really rejected scripts on that principle?" I pressed."Scripts that were passed on to, and done by someone else?" ' "True. Very true," Van Cleef affirmed. "But basically I would say : I am an actor, that I enjoy what I'm doing and want to continue doing it, I want the public to enjoy it as much as I do, and that I'll never quit, until I'm dead. The things I do in a movie, I try to justify. If it's not in the script, I can't justify it; but if it's in the script, I will. What the real bad guys are doing is something entirely different. What they're doing is out on the street. My movies'll play on the street, but I'm not doing anything ' on the street. I'm in there to do a job; just like the P.T.A., or whoever, is out to do their job ... when they're doin' it, instead of horsin' around!
"I don't think it should be shown that the rapist, or murderer, or something like that gets away with it," he said. "That's when it begins to get a little sticky, because some goddarn nut-who's probably nuts already-will probably go out and try some dumb thing. That's what they say about too much violence on screen, which I don't agree with, because if they showed violence as realistically as it can be, then that would be a deterrent. But they don't. They make it look like fun and games, and you don't see the gore and blood. Then is when you're gonna have trouble, because it doesn't look like anybody gets hurt when they get punched in the mouth. Try it sometimes! Jesus Christ.
"I think the more gory violence is made, the more realistic, the better it is. And that way, I do notthink it is anything that's gonna entice anybody-unless they're already nuts! That doesn't necessarily agree with a lot of psychiatrists and psychologists, but it's my personal opinion. Show war as it is. Nobody'11 want to go to war. They don't want to go to war now, because they've seen it."
"As you certainly have," I said. "I understand your naval service in World War II took you to the Caribbean on a submarine chaser; then through the Mediterranean, Black and China seas on a mine sweeper. In effect, as a very young man you had seen the world, but a world half destroyed by war. What was the sensation of going back to many of these places years later, not as a sailor, but as a fflm star, and seeing them in peace and prosperity"
"Well, it's always a thrill to see a place when it's not at war," Van Cleef stated the obvious. "When we went over to Israel to make a couple of pictures, I had my wife with me. And she wanted to go to Jerusalem so bad. But a journalist I was having an interview with said, `Don't go to Jerusalem' Because they weren't printing half of what the actual damage and killing was, at that particular point. That was a few years ago when all holy hell was breakin' loose there. They would only print a portion of it. They wouldn't tell of all the innocent bystanders that got it, shot or stoned or blasted with a bomb. So wherever there's any turmoil in this world in any shape or form, and I'm aware of it, I avoid it. I won't take my wife into it, and I won't go anywhere without her."
"She accompanies you on location?"
"She goes with me everywhere. Most generally, we're together on all occasions. We made a pact when we first got married, back in 1976, that if she goes on a concert tour, I go with her. If I'm on a picture, she goes with me, and that's the way it's been. It's a mutual agreement. I don't push her into anything. I don't have to. She's more than willing to please me, just like I am willing to please her. And we respect each other's need to be alone once in a while, too. That counts for a lot. She likes to go walk on the beach, wherever we are; as she did in Israel, and up and down our own coasts here," Van Cleef said. A hard edge in his voice had disappeared, possibly as the mental pictures of actual, headline-making villains were replaced by one more tender. "I let her go wanderin' off," he said. "So, she's off on her own, just like I'm alone with my own thoughts. She can't see me ... but I've got my eye on her, my safety eye. Nothing's going to happen to her."
Footprints in the sand, a brush on canvas, keyboard duets, hearth and home. Such idyllic pastimes are not the wages of cinematic sin. Fortunately, real life has been kinder to Lee Van Cleef. Add one more reward so contrary to the deserts of most of his screen characters, one he would agree has been the best.
He got the girl. [October 1979. ]