Lee Van Cleef, Official Badass and Savior of Little Dogs
Everybody knows the Lee Van Cleef of late 1960s spaghetti Westerns. But there are two sides to him that many people don’t know about. One–Van Cleef as a film noir tough–is known to film buffs. The second–Van Cleff as rescuer of tiny dogs–is less well-known.
Long before Van Cleef appeared in For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and other Italian-directed Westerns, he burned up the celluloid with his portrayals of film noir heavies.
With his sharp visage, hawk-like nose, and those wolf eyes, Van Cleef was a quiet, menacing presence in classics like Kansas City Confidential and The Big Combo.
Also it turns out that he was a real-life badass. Van Cleef served in the U.S. Navy during WWII as a soundman and while his ship was in the Mediterranean, he heroically leaped off to save a dog–recalling another heroic badass who attempted to save a dog while chomping on a pipe, F. Bert Farquahrson.
SAILOR DIVES OFF SHIP TO SAVE PUP WASHED INTO SEA
How he dived 30 feet from the bridge of the mine-sweeper into the Mediterranean with the pipe he was smoking still tight in his teeth, and won himself a four-legged pal at the same time, is the story told in a letter home from Soundman 2c C. Leroy Van Cleef Jr. 20, U.S. Navy of 198 North Bridge St. H wrote his parents:
“We were along the coast and had our new mascot aboard. It was a fairly heavy sea (and cold water, I might add). Our mascot happens to be a spaniel of some sort. We call the water-loving hound ‘Rusty’.
“Well, Rusty was out on the fantail this day and a wave came along, washing her overboard. We had to get permission to break formation and go back for her. That took us about 15 minutes until we finally found her. I was up on the bridge at the time, smoking my pipe. Well, I shed the knife I had on and my shoes, and yelled up for permission to go after her. ‘Permission granted.’
“So I dove off the bridge. When I hit the water, I heard something snap in my mouth. That happened to be my pipe while diving about 30 feet. I don’t know how my teeth escaped breaking. Luck, I call it. However, I got Rusty all right. She was swimming to beat everything. Quite a current too. They threw us a life ring and pulled us aboard.
“Yesterday I was out on the fantail and the sea was rushing up on the deck. Rusty came up and snuggled around my legs. I guess that swim was worth my favorite pipe.”