Lee Van Cleef, the nine-fingered master of the sidelong Western sneer, died 20 years ago today.
Had he lived, he’d be 84 years old now.
Van Cleef played “Angel Eyes” in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly — Van Cleef being the bad, Eli Wallach the ugly, and Clint Eastwood (by default) the good. Van Cleef proved so fine at spaghetti westerns that he spent most of the 1970s making them at the source in Italy and Spain.
He came back to Hollywood for a satisfying turn as the scowling police commissioner Hauk in John Carpenter’s 1981 camp classic Escape From New York.
Van Cleef had an interesting take on movie violence, as quoted in his 1989 obituary:
”I believe in showing real violence, not toy violence… Real violence turns you off because you know it’s not the thing to do. If you show violence realistic enough, people don’t want to do it.”
When we started our now-infamous loop Celebs Missing Fingers, Van Cleef was the name most often sent in by users. Like Daryl Hannah, he’s not actually missing a whole finger — just part of the middle finger on his right hand. If you’re feeling obsessive, rent TGTBATU and look for it in the gunfight at the end. (“The camera dwells on this detail lovingly,” says John Moscowitz in his 2000 book Critical Approaches to Writing About Film.)
It’s not completely clear how Van Cleef lost the finger. (It rarely is with fingers. For years we heard that Hannah had her finger bitten off by a horse, before we found an interview where she said she got it caught in a well pulley as a child.) The IMDB and other copycat sources say Van Cleef sawed or hacked his finger off while building a playhouse for his daughter. But we have never been able to find an attribution or a smoking-gun quote where Van Cleef himself said “yes, that’s how it happened.”
Now we probably never will.
Good luck to you, Mr. Van Cleef, wherever you are.