Lee Van Cleef Biography

Clarence Leroy Van Cleef Jr., a renowned American actor, gained fame for his portrayal of negative characters in iconic films such as ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ and ‘For a Few Dollars More’. With his distinctive features, including piercing eyes and a hawk-like nose, coupled with his exceptional acting skills, he became synonymous with Western arch-villains throughout his illustrious career. Van Cleef’s extensive body of work spans over 38 years, encompassing 90 films and 109 television appearances. Prior to his acting career, he undertook various odd jobs and served in the United States Navy during World War II. However, it was his breakthrough role in Sergio Leone’s 1965 spaghetti Western film ‘For a Few Dollars More’ that catapulted him to stardom. This success was further solidified by his portrayal of “The Bad” in Leone’s epic ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’. Van Cleef continued to captivate audiences with his hero and anti-hero roles in numerous Westerns and action films, including ‘Sabata’, ‘El Condor’, and ‘Take a Hard Ride’.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Clarence LeRoy Van Cleef Jr.
  • Died At Age: 64
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Barbara Havelone (m. 1976), Joan Drane (m. 1960; div. 1974), Patsy Ruth (m. 1943; div. 1960)
    • Father: Clarence LeRoy Van Cleef Sr.
    • Mother: Marion Levinia Van Fleet
    • Children: Alan Van Cleef, David Van Cleef, Deborah Van Cleef, Denise Van Cleef
  • Born Country: United States
  • Height: 6’2″ (188 cm), 6’2″ Males
  • Died on: December 16, 1989
  • Place of Death: Oxnard, California, United States
  • Ancestry: Dutch American, German American, British American
  • Cause of Death: Heart Disease
  • U.S. State: New Jersey

Childhood & Early Life

Lee Van Cleef was born on January 9, 1925, in Somerville, New Jersey, US to Clarence LeRoy Van Cleef and Marion Van Fleet (née Levinia). He attended Somerville High School and received his high school diploma at 17. He enlisted in the United States Navy (USN) in September 1942 and completed his basic and other trainings at the Naval Fleet Sound School. He was then delegated to a submarine chaser and later became a sonarman in the Admirable-class minesweeper ‘USS Incredible’. After performing several war duties, he was discharged in March 1946 with the rank of Sonarman First Class (S01). He received several medals for his contributions in the military, including the Good Conduct Medal, the Bronze Star, and various campaign medals.


After his time in the Navy, Cleef got involved with the entertainment industry. He joined the ‘Little Theater Group’ in Clinton, New Jersey, and auditioned for various roles while also working as an accountant. He was noticed by talent scouts and introduced to a talent agent in New York City. He landed a role in the play ‘Mister Roberts’ and became part of its national touring production. Film director Stanley Kramer spotted him during a stage production and cast him in the film ‘High Noon’. Cleef’s distinctive features soon typecast him in minor villainous roles in films of different genres.

He also appeared in several television series in the early 1950s and continued to make appearances in various TV shows over the years. One of his notable TV roles was the starring role of John Peter McAllister in the ninja-themed action-adventure TV series ‘The Master’.

Cleef’s major breakthrough in films came when he was offered the role of Col. Douglas Mortimer in the spaghetti Western film ‘For a Few Dollars More’ by Italian director Sergio Leone. The film became a major commercial hit and established Cleef as a star of Spaghetti Westerns. He went on to star in other notable films such as ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, ‘The Big Gundown’, and ‘Sabata’.

Personal Life & Legacy

Cleef was married to his high school sweetheart Patsy Ruth from 1943 to 1960 and had three children with her. He married Joan Marjorie Drane in 1960, but they divorced in 1974. He married Barbara Havelone in 1976. Cleef passed away on December 16, 1989, and was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Hollywood Hills, California. His gravestone bears the inscription “BEST OF THE BAD”.

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