Born on January 9, 1925 to parents of Dutch ancestry, Lee Van Cleef grew up in the pleasant farm community of Sommerville, New Jersey. Coming of age just in time for World War II, he served in the U.S. Navy aboard a submarine chaser in the Caribbean, then in the Black and China Seas on a mine sweeper. Married in 1943 to Patsy Ruth, Lee settled down to family life after the war. He and his wife had three children together, one girl and two boys. He did not start out as an actor to support his family, but worked on farms and other outdoors jobs, then at a plant as a time study methods and motions analyst as well as dabbling in accounting. After being told so often that with his unique look he should try acting, he joined a local theater company in Clinton, New Jersey. "I went out there one night by a friend's invitation and tried out for a part-- and damn if I didn't make it!" His first big break came in an audition for the touring company of "Mr. Roberts". Of this New York audition Lee said, "The Director asked me to take off my jacket, then my shirt, then my pants and strut around the stage." Even though there was a "broad sitting down there next to him," Lee complied and gave what he said was a terrible reading, but the strapping, muscular young man obviously had what they were looking for, and he was cast. Upon being offered the job, a very conscientious Van Cleef said he could not take it without giving two weeks notice at the plant where he worked. It seemed that such a length of time would be impossible for the director, and so he declined taking the role. Upon returning to work, his boss promptly fired him. He asked Lee, "You want to do this thing, don't you?" To which Lee replied, "Yes, I do." "OK then, your fired." His performance in Mr. Roberts was seen by Stanley Kramer which led him to be cast in the classic film High Noon (1952) as the character of Jack Colby. This was not the part he was originally approached about though. Kramer's first intention was to cast him in the role of Harvey Pell and asked Lee if he would get his nose fixed for the role. In characteristic fashion, Lee told him over the phone "where he could go" and thought that was the end of that. But Kramer called him back the next day offering the part of the heavy, Colby. Even though he had virtually no dialogue, this film did get him noticed and the die was cast. Lee Van Cleef would be cast in film after film for the next several years primarily in supporting roles as the villain or the brash young bad guy.

In 1959, a severe alcohol related car crash nearly cost him his career as a resulting knee injury had doctors telling him he would never ride a horse again. This injury was to plague him for the rest of his life, causing him great pain. His recovery was long and arduous and did take him away from acting for a time. He divorced his first wife, and married again in 1960. During his time away from acting, Lee began a business in interior decoration with wife Joanie, as well as pursuing his talent for painting, primarily of sea and landscapes. While building a studio off his house in Granada, Lee cut off the tip of his finger on his right hand. This would later become rather a trademark for him. He described his down time from acting jobs as unhealthy dry spells. His acting career, it seemed, had run its course ending with many TV appearances. But there was an opportunity waiting for him that was to change his life.

In 1965, a courageous young Italian Director named Sergio Leone was looking to cast his second so called "Spaghetti Western" after having much success with his first of such films, "A Fistfull of Dollars" (starring a young Clint Eastwood.) For his second film entitled "For a Few Dollars More", Leone was looking for an actor to play the co-starring role opposite Eastwood -- the sophisticated, competent older character of Colonel Douglas Mortimer. Leone wanted to cast Lee Marvin, but he had just signed for the film Cat Ballou. So Leone came to Los Angeles to search for another actor. He came across Lee's picture and called his agent who didn't know what he was doing at the moment, since he had been out of the business for quite some time. Lee was contacted, and went for the interview. By now, he knew how to sell himself. Coming prepared in a black overcoat and boots, Leone took one look at his silhouette in the doorway and knew he had his man. Lee was offered the film right there, with a salary of $17,000. Once again, a conscientious Van Cleef could not take it unless his current client, whose house he was in the middle of designing, was paid back. So Leone came up with another $5,000 to pay him off.

Lee was off to location in a place halfway around the world called Almeria, Spain. The Spanish village and surrounding countryside had an uncanny resemblance to Texas and a small Mexican border town. As men are apt to do, an argument broke out between Eastwood and Van Cleef as to who was the faster draw. Lee won the argument, being clocked by frames on the film reel. In 1966, Lee was again to be cast with Eastwood in Sergio's next film, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. This role was completely different from the good guy of Colonel Mortimer, and it is a credit to Van Cleef's abilities as an actor as it is sometimes hard to believe they are played by the same man. During this film it was actually Eastwood who dubbed him Angel Eyes. This goes down in history as one of the screen's greatest villainous roles.

Lee Van Cleef went on to starring roles with salaries to match in many Euro-Westerns during the late 60's and on into the '70's when the genre started to fade. During this time he became one of the top ten biggest box office draws in Europe. He purchased a home in Rome, and gave one of his few television interviews for Spanish television after purchasing a cattle ranch in that country. The days of the Spaghetti Western may then have begun to fade, but Lee's career did not. The genre took a strange turn in the mid-seventies, combining with a new and upcoming genre, the martial arts action films. Lee appeared in one of these combos, The Stranger and the Gunfighter in 1974. He thus began a new phase of his life, marrying for a third time to wife Barbara Havalone, and relocating to Oxnard, California. For the remainder of his career, he played in many action/adventure films, such as, The Octagon and Escape From New York. In 1984 he had the lead in a short lived television series called "The Master", playing an American Ninja now in the United States searching for his long lost daughter.

Lee Van Cleef worked up until his failing health took his life on December 14, 1989 at the age of 64. He collapsed in his home from a heart attack. His wife Barbara called paramedics but they were unable to revive him. He was buried at Forest Lawn in the Hollywood Hills. After a career that spanned four decades, Lee Van Cleef has given us a tremendous body of work to remember him by. He was a hero to many, allowing them to live vicariously through him as his calm and cool demeanor exuded confidence and strength on screen. He appealed to that bit of villain in all of us. When once asked if he liked playing the bad guy, Lee replied, "Sure, those characters have a lot of depth." He may have been drawn into playing them by his intense eyes and sharp features, but he honed his skill to a finely tuned art.