10/3/20: Who Doesn’t Love A Good Villain

By Fred Muenz

William Scott “Jack” Elam was born in the tiny mining town of Miami, Arizona, in November, 1920. His mother died when young Jack was just four-years-old, and he was forced to live with a succession of families, some of whom made him work for his keep. At the age of six, he was picking cotton. In 1930, he was finally reunited with his father and sister, and a new step-mother. A fight at a Boy Scout meeting when he was twelve resulted in his being stabbed in the eye with a pencil, with the resultant loss of both the sight and the muscle control of his left eye. This “wide-eyed” look (the opposite of cross-eyed) became his most distinguishing characteristic. After graduating from college with a degree in accounting, he went to work as bookkeeper in a bank and auditor for the Standard Oil Company, before leaving for U.S. Navy service during World War II. Returning from service, he became auditor and manager of the Bel Air Hotel, starting his own successful accounting practice when the hotel was sold. Accountant to Samuel Goldwyn and controller of Hopalong Cassidy Enterprises, he developed many friends and contacts in the film industry. When his eye doctor told him that his work with small numbers on ledger pages was jeopardizing the sight in his remaining eye, he was forced to review his career choice. At the same time, a director friend was complaining that he had three completed western scripts but couldn’t get financing. Jack Elam offered to secure financing for the pictures in return for roles in the three films, as a “heavy”, and a memorable screen character was born. His big break came when he played a nasty, sadistic villain in the film RAWHIDE (1949). Tyrone Power, star of RAWHIDE, was so impressed with Elam, that he convinced Darryl Zanuck to offer him a seven-year contract at 20th Century Fox. Over the next four decades, Jack Elam appeared in 119 movies and over 260 television shows, mostly playing his familiar villain role. He claimed that his passions were “drinking scotch and playing poker”. It was rumored that his studio contract contained a provision allowing him to play cards on set. Jack Elam died of congestive heart failure in October, 2003, a month short of his 83rd birthday.

Clarence Leroy “Lee” Van Cleef Jr. was born in Sommerville, N.J. in January, 1925. In September, 1942, at age 17, he was allowed to graduate early from high school so he could join the U.S. Navy. Serving on Sub Chasers and Mine Sweepers, he saw action in the Atlantic, including the D-Day landing in France, as well as in the Mediterranean, Black Sea and the Pacific. After his discharge in 1946, he married his high school sweetheart and settled down to raise a family, working as a time and motion analyst and part-time accountant at a local manufacturing plant. Expressing an interest in the theater, friends suggested that he audition with a local Little Theater Group. After receiving his first stage role in a production of Our Town, he was convinced that he wanted to be an actor and continued to meet with the group and try out for new parts. More roles followed, and he was soon noticed by talent scouts, one of whom took him to New York and signed him up with the MCA talent agency. His break came when he was signed for a role with a touring company production of Mister Roberts. Playing in Los Angeles, he was noticed by director Stanley Kramer, who cast him in the role of Jack Colby, one of the villains in the classic western film HIGH NOON (1952). Even though his character had no dialogue in HIGH NOON, he was cast in film after film over the following years. By 1959, when he experienced a serious auto accident, he had appeared in over 46 films, always as a villain. The accident destroyed hid kneecap, and he was told that he would never ride a horse again. Film roles disappeared and working with his wife as an interior decorator and selling his landscape and seascape paintings took the place of his acting career. In 1965, Italian film director, Sergio Leone was looking for a new face for his second “spaghetti western”, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965). Coming across a picture of Lee Van Cleef, he decided that he was the guy he wanted. Lee discovered that he was able to ride a horse, and his career was reborn. More “spaghetti westerns” followed, including several filmed in Israel, and Lee Van Cleef became an international star. Suffering from cancer, he died of a heart attack in December, 1989. By the time of his death, at age 64, he had appeared in 90 films and 109 television programs, including starring roles in several TV series’.

ANOTHER SILVER SCREEN MEMORY NEXT WEEK.

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