Saturday, May 25, 2013

Pipe Smoker: Lee Van Cleef

Clarence Leroy "Lee" Van Cleef, Jr. (1925 - 1989)

"Being born with a pair of beady eyes was the best thing that ever happened to me."

I can easily say that Lee Van Cleef is my favorite pipe-smoking actor.  Born in New Jersey, he served in World War II in the U.S. Navy on board a submarine-chaser and later on a minesweeper.  After the war he was an accountant for a while, then got into acting.  At first he acted in theater, but soon transitioned to movies and first appeared in the movie in High Noon in 1952.

He had a long career in movies and television, mostly in westerns, and became famous for portraying tough guys.  Very tough guys.  Sometimes an extremely hard-case good guy, sometimes an outright bad guy, such as in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

His characters were very often pipe smokers, seeming to prefer a very well-smoked meerschaum or a Peterson.  Often a pipe-smoking character isn't really a pipe smoker, and will pretend smoke what I like to call a "stunt pipe."  However, if you're an experienced pipe smoker you should be able to see that Van Cleef most definitely did not use a stunt pipe.  He was using the real thing, and I would be very surprised if the pipes he smoked weren't part of his own personal collection.

Van Cleef continued to work in acting right up until he died in 1989.  His last appearance was in the movie Speed Zone.  The last TV series he appeared in, and in which he had a co-starring role, was The Master in 1984.  I have especially fond memories of this very short-lived series, which had a somewhat ridiculous premise but was a favorite that my roommate and I always watched when I was in college.

One of my favorite movies, and I think I can say my favorite Van Cleef movie, is a relatively obscure one called Barquero.  Another western, in which he portrays a barge operator on the Rio Grande River, and which I have mentioned before here.  In many movies, he wasn't the primary star, but in this one he is.  I highly recommend it if you want to see him in all of his hard-assed pipe-smoking glory.  His character is one of those very tough guys who seems to be perched on the border between good guy and bad guy, much like Clint Eastwood's character in High Plains Drifter.  The above picture is a screen capture from that movie.  Here is the trailer.

Here is another screen cap from a documentary on spaghetti westerns called Spaghetti West.  I grabbed this one to show that he most certainly smoked a pipe in real life and didn't just use it as a movie prop.  This was a scene that showed him having a discussion with the writers of whatever movie he was working on at the time (I don't remember which one).

And finally, I would be remiss if I didn't include this video from the rock band Primus, titled simply "Lee Van Cleef."

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