Everybody knows the Lee Van Cleef of late 1960s spaghetti Westerns. Forget that.
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.”