Pipes in Film: Lee Van Cleef

When Sergio Leone originally cast Clint Eastwood in his first spaghetti Western, he felt that Eastwood's until-then fresh-faced, clean-cut image needed considerable roughing-up, to lend his character a tougher, more ruthless sense of virility than anything he had previously played. Thus came the broad poncho, the rugged beard, and, perhaps most iconic, the dark cheroot almost constantly clenched between his teeth. The irony of this image, now so ingrained, was that Eastwood didn't smoke, had never smoked, and by the second film in Leone's famed trilogy, For a Few Dollars More, he was trying to convince Leone (in vain) that the anti-hero lead need not necessarily be trailing smoke throughout almost every scene.

But for another actor who gained a big break from Leone's eerie, enigmatic, and savage tales portrayed across the Spartan landscapes of the Western frontier, there was no need for aesthetic reinvention. Nor, for that matter, any trouble getting him to smoke. Lee Van Cleef is quoted as having once observed of his life that, "Being born with a pair of beady eyes was the best thing that ever happened to me." Some irony does come into play there, however, as what cinched Leone's decision to pair him up as a mysterious, vengeance-seeking co-anti-hero with Eastwood in For Few Dollars More, was not simply his fiercely aquiline countenance, but, as he put it, the total package: "I saw him some way away, and, was struck by his silhouette, his extraordinary attractiveness: he was perfect for my character."

Though Van Cleef had previously done quite a lot of acting, both on screen and on stage, and had become notable indeed for his unique look, when Leone met him he was in the midst of a lengthy forced hiatus. He had been working as a freelance painter, with only the occasional small role, following a car accident which had destroyed one of his kneecaps. Though the doctors had told him he would never ride a horse again, he was doing precisely that within six months... and yet nonetheless the future of his acting career seemed to have become extremely tenuous. Once given another chance at a significant role, however, he nailed it.

So it is that today Van Cleef's unique, fiercely aquiline, yet refined features, which made him a natural for portraying villains and steely-eyed heroes with a ruthless streak alike, remain as an inseparable part of our image of the spaghetti Western's heyday.

Lee Van Cleef was a talented actor with an undoubtedly striking look - beady eyes (allegedly heterochromatic, at that) and singular silhouette included. Though he played in many, many roles both before and after his injury-induced hiatus, there is one role, and one scene in particular, which has always been the first to come to my own mind - one which is utterly steeped in portraying a mindset of unflinching boldness and brashness in the face of evil (as personified by noted actor/madman Klaus Kinski), one which makes the most of Van Cleef's simultaneously intimidating and aristocratic features... and which also, as it so happens, involves a man simply, leisurely, enjoying his pipe:

 

 

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Famous Pipe Smokers Film Pipe Culture

Comments

    • Joe Hazen on March 9, 2017
    • What tobacco did Van Cleef smoke?

    • Bryan Webber on June 7, 2017
    • I loved this movie and totally forgot the fact Van Cleef smoked a pipe in it. Looks well smoked too.

    • Juan S. Gonzalez on August 6, 2017
    • Sirs, I'm a loyal customer and was wondering if smokingpipes.com carried the same style pipe or close too the one Mr. Cleef used in the movie For a Few Dollars More. I'd really appreciate it as I'd like to purchase one that style and size.

    • Adam O'Neill on August 7, 2017
    • @Juan S. Gonzalez It looks to be just a well used meerschaum bent Billiard. It doesn't look like we have any in that particular style right now, but the best place to keep an eye out is the Pipe Locator. I've filled it out to be looking for the right pipe for you below.

      https://www.smokingpipes.com/search/the-pipe-locator.cfm?shape=5&shape=34&material=3&sortOpt=default&displayNum=24

    • Giuseppe on September 2, 2019
    • Hi, I wrotte from Italy.
      During a research for my book about history of pipe I found this wonderful blog.
      Me too have done a small chapter for my book about Sergio Leone movies and I can tell you that the pipe used by Lee Van Cleef was bought from Fincato pipeshop in Rome by Sergio Leone in person, should be a Peterson.

    • Rondy Reeves on October 3, 2019
    • Pipe-spotting in movies and tv shows is always a blast. I can state with about 95% confidence that Dan Aykroyd, for example, smoked a Dr. Grabow Omega during Ghostbusters 2 in a scene at his character’s bookstore.

      Lee Van Cleef was certainly a proud pipe smoker. It’s always easy to tell a real pipe smoker from a fake by the way they hold their pipe in a scene; for example, it’s pretty obvious that Benedict Cumberbatch is absolutely faking his pipe smoking during the Victorian-age episode Sherlock Holmes and the Abominable Bride. The pipe, in his hands, is just a prop as they knew that they could not pull off a Victorian Sherlock Holmes without his beloved pipe. Mr. Van Cleef handles his pipe during his scenes like a real pro and almost lovingly caresses his pipe while he smokes.

    • David Edelen on January 4, 2021
    • Joe Hazen, I was told Cleef like an English blend called “Phillosopher”

    • David Edelen on January 4, 2021
    • Gentlemen in Good, Bad n Ugly and ithers Cleef smoked a WDC “Wellington” pipe. In For a Few Dollars Mire he smoked a Meerschaum pipe.

    • David Edelen on January 5, 2021
    • What pipe was Cleef smoking in Death Rides a Horse?

    • Jake Baker on March 29, 2021
    • Not for certain about the shape, but I’m almost positive the pipe smoked my Lee in DRAH is a horn stem ROPP, btw for you LVC fans, check out the new movie SAD HILL.

    • Cossack Jack on March 30, 2021
    • LVC in DRaH appeared to smoke either a ROPP 'La Montagnarde', model 298 or model 398 pipe (with a horn stem), or a Butz-Choquin 'Montagnarde' pipe (the shank band appears to be too narrow & the stem is Lucite, not bone).

    • David Long on April 26, 2022
    • One can assume Mr. Van Cleef was smoking his own kind of special blend, not unlike the Edward G. Robinson type that was commonly in stores some years back. No one who has so fancy a pipe would be putting just Prince Albert or any other garden variety in it, true?

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