Actor Lee Van Cleef, the steely-eyed villain of American Westerns who became an international star by playing the hero in Italian "spaghetti" Westerns of the 1960s, died Saturday morning in Oxnard of an apparent heart attack. He was 64 years old.
Van Cleef, who had a long history of heart trouble, suffered a seizure at about 11:40 p.m. Friday at his home and was pronounced dead at St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard shortly after midnight, according to the coroner's office.
From an obscure actor playing minor villain roles, Van Cleef stormed into international stardom after appearing opposite Clint Eastwood in Italian director Sergio Leone's "For a Few More Dollars."
By the early 1970s, Van Cleef had become one of the ten most popular box-office stars in Europe and had established himself as a cult figure.
Some of his best known films include, "The Magnificent Seven Ride!" "Escape from New York," and " Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo, " or "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly."
In recent years, he had slipped out of the limelight, starring in such forgetable productions as the television show, "The Master," about a martial expert searching for his long-lost daughter, and the movie, "Killing Machine" with Margaux Hemingway.
Van Cleef was born Jan. 9, 1925, in Somerville, N.J. After a stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he returned home and acted in local theatrical productions.
In 1952, Van Cleef won his first film role as the sardonic killer who died in the showdown gunfight with Gary Cooper in the Western classic, "High Noon." Van Cleef's cruel-looking hooked nose and demonic smile won him several villain roles afterwards.
But it was in 1966 that Van Cleef was noticed by Leone, who was searching for actors with distinctive facial features to star in Italian-made Westerns.
"My story suddenly turned into a rags-to-riches saga," he said. "And just in time, too."