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Actor Lee Van Cleef, Villain in Hundreds of Westerns

December 17, 1989

OXNARD, Calif. (AP) _ Actor Lee Van Cleef, whose steely eyes and hawklike features won him a long career portraying arch-villains in western movies, died early Saturday, apparently of a heart attack, authorities said. He was 64.

Van Cleef’s film break came when he was cast as one of four desperadoes faced down by Gary Cooper in the 1952 movie ″High Noon.″ He became a familiar gunslinger in so-called spaghetti Westerns made by Italian director Sergio Leone, including ″The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.″

Among his hundreds of black-hat roles were parts in ″How The West Was Won,″ ″The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance″ and ″Death Rides a Horse.″

Van Cleef collapsed at his Oxnard home around 11:40 p.m. Friday night, said Craig Stevens, a Ventura County deputy coroner. The coastal community is about 60 miles north of Los Angeles.

The actor’s wife, Barbara, called paramedics and he was taken to St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Oxnard, where he was pronounced dead at 12:04 a.m., Stevens said.

″It’s an apparent heart attack,″ Stevens said. ″He’s got a history of heart disease. He had a permanent pacemaker.″

In 1969, Van Cleef jokingly attributed his gunslinger casting in some 350 television movies and motion pictures to his predator’s nose.

″I didn’t speak a word in ’High Noon,‴ he recalled. ″In 1951 Stanley and Earl Kramer saw me in a play. ‘Mr. Roberts,’ and offered me the role eventually played by Lloyd Bridges in the film, providing I would have my nose fixed. I refused and wound up as one of the four villains.″

″Now,people remember this beak,″ he said.

Born in 1925 of Dutch ancestry in Somerville, N.J., Van Cleef dropped out of high school to join the Navy, where he served on submarine chasers and minesweepers. He was discharged in 1946.

He worked several odd jobs as a farmer, gas station attendant and painter before getting his first stage role in a production of ″Our Town″ by an amateur troupe in Clinton, N.J.

New York producer and director Harold Anderson noticed Van Cleef in an amateur production of ″Heaven Can Wait,″ and helped find him a place in the road company production of the World War II Navy comedy, ″Mr. Roberts,″ with Henry Fonda.

Van Cleef spent 14 months on the road with ″Mr. Roberts″ before making his first film appearance in ″High Noon.″

His film career had stalled when he was recruited by Leone to play in the 1965 Western, ″For a Few Dollars More,″ starring Clint Eastwood as the man with no name.

Van Cleef changed hats for his role in the film, playing what he called ″a non-angelic sort of character who’s still on the side of the law.″

In the follow-up film, ″The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,″ however, Van Cleef returned to his villainous roots, playing opposite Eastwood and Eli Wallach. He also appeared in the science-fiction thriller ″Escape From New York.″

Van Cleef’s extended work in Italy and Europe may have hurt his career, said his agent, Tom Jennings.

″I think he could have been a greater movie star, as big as Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood, had he come back from Europe sooner than he did. But he liked working abroad,″ Jennings said. ″He wasn’t the ambitious killer-type star, always going after the gold ring. He did his own thing.″

His last television project was NBC’s 1984 series ″The Master,″ where he played an Air Force colonel who becomes a Ninja martial arts expert in post- World War II Japan.

Van Cleef had three children by his first marriage to Patsy Ruth Van Cleef.

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