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: