Van Cleef, born of partial Dutch ancestry on January 9, 1925, in Somerville, New Jersey, was the son of Marion Van Fleet (née Levinia) and Clarence LeRoy Van Cleef. At age 17, he obtained his high school diploma early in his senior year in order to enlist in the United States Navy in September 1942.
After basic training and further training at the Naval Fleet Sound School, Van Cleef was assigned to a submarine chaser and then to a minesweeper, USS Incredible, on which he worked as a sonarman.
The ship initially patrolled the Caribbean, then moved to the Mediterranean, participating in the landings in southern France. In January 1945, Incredible moved to the Black Sea, and performed sweeping duties out of the Soviet Navy base at Sevastopol, Crimea. Afterwards the ship performed air-sea rescue patrols in the Black Sea before returning to Palermo, Sicily. By the time of his discharge in March 1946, he had achieved the rank of Sonarman First Class (SO1) and had earned his mine sweeper patch. He also had been awarded the Bronze Star and the Good Conduct Medal. By virtue of his deployments Van Cleef also qualified for the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the American Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal.
Van Cleef possessed the rare physical characteristic of heterochromatic eyes, having eyes of two different colors; in his case, one green and one blue.
After leaving the Navy, Van Cleef read for a part in Our Town at the Little Theater Group in Clinton, New Jersey. He was given the part. From there, he continued to meet with the group and audition for parts. The next biggest part was that of the boxer, Joe Pendleton, in the play Heaven Can Wait. During this time he was observed by visiting talent scouts who were impressed by Van Cleef's stage presence and delivery. One of these scouts later took him to New York City talent agent Maynard Morris of the MCA agency who then sent him to the Alvin Theater for an audition. The play was Mister Roberts.
Van Cleef's screen debut came in High Noon. During a performance of Mister Roberts in Los Angeles, he was noticed by film director Stanley Kramer who offered Van Cleef a role in his upcoming film. Kramer originally wanted Van Cleef for the role of the deputy Harvey Pell, but as he wanted Van Cleef to have his "distinctive nose" fixed, Van Cleef declined the role in favor of the part of the silent gunslinger Jack Colby. He was then cast mostly in villainous roles, due to his sharp cheeks and chin, piercing eyes and hawk-like nose, from the part of Tony Romano in Kansas City Confidential (1952), culminating 14 years later in Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).
Aside from westerns and the science fiction films, three of his early major roles were in noir films, Kansas City Confidential (1952), Vice Squad (1953) and The Big Combo (1955). Van Cleef appeared six times between 1951 and 1955 on the children's syndicated western series The Adventures of Kit Carson, starring Bill Williams. He was cast three times, including the role of Rocky Hatch in the episode "Greed Rides the Range" (1952), of another syndicated western series, The Range Rider. In 1952, he was cast in the episode "Formula for Fear" of the western aviation series Sky King. He appeared in episode 82 of the TV series The Lone Ranger in 1952. In 1954, Van Cleef appeared as Jesse James in the syndicated series, Stories of the Century.
In 1955, he was cast twice on another syndicated western series, Annie Oakley. That same year, he guest-starred on the CBS western series, Brave Eagle. In 1955, he played one of the two villains in an episode of The Adventures of Champion the Wonder Horse. In 1958, he was cast as Ed Murdock, a rodeo performer trying to reclaim the title in the event at Madison Square Garden in New York City, on Richard Diamond, Private Detective.
Van Cleef played different minor characters on four episodes of ABC's The Rifleman, with Chuck Connors, between 1959 and 1962, and twice on ABC's Tombstone Territory. In 1958, he was cast as Deputy Sid Carver in the episode "The Great Stagecoach Robbery" of another syndicated western series, Frontier Doctor, starring Rex Allen. Van Cleef appeared in 1959 as Luke Clagg in the episode "Strange Request" of the NBC western series Riverboat.
Van Cleef played a sentry on an episode of the ABC sitcom The Real McCoys, with Walter Brennan. Van Cleef was cast with Pippa Scott and again with Chuck Connors in the 1960 episode "Trial by Fear" of the CBS anthology series The DuPont Show with June Allyson. A young Van Cleef also made an appearance on The Andy Griffith Show and as Frank Diamond in The Untouchables, in an episode entitled "The Unhired Assassin". He also appeared in an episode of the ABC/Warner Brothers western series The Alaskans.
Van Cleef guest-starred on the CBS western series Have Gun - Will Travel, on the ABC/WB series Colt .45, on the NBC western series Cimarron City and Laramie, and on Rod Cameron's syndicated crime dramas City Detective and State Trooper. He guest-starred in an episode of John Bromfield's syndicated crime drama Sheriff of Cochise. Van Cleef starred as minor villains and henchmen in various westerns, including The Tin Star and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
In 1958, a severe car crash nearly cost Van Cleef his life and career. A resulting knee injury made his physicians think that he would never ride a horse again. This injury plagued Van Cleef for the rest of his life and caused him great pain. His recovery was long and arduous and halted his acting for a time. He then began a business in interior decoration with second wife Joan, as well as pursuing his talent for painting, primarily of sea and landscapes.
In 1960, he appeared as a villainous swindler in the Bonanza episode, "The Bloodline" (December 31, 1960) and also made an appearance on Gunsmoke. In 1961, he played a role on episode 7 ("The Grave") of the third season of The Twilight Zone. He played a villainous henchman of Lee Marvin's title character in the 1962 John Ford movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In 1963, he appeared on Perry Mason (episode: "The Case of the Golden Oranges"). That same year, he appeared in "The Day of the Misfits" on The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters.
In 1965, the actor's career underwent a dramatic change when Sergio Leone cast Van Cleef, whose career was still in the doldrums, as one of the two protagonists, alongside Clint Eastwood, in For a Few Dollars More. Leone then chose Van Cleef to appear again with Eastwood, this time as the primary villain Angel Eyes, in the now seminal western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). With his roles in Leone's films, Van Cleef became a major star of Spaghetti Westerns, playing central, and often surprisingly heroic, roles in films such as The Big Gundown (1966), Death Rides a Horse (1967), Day of Anger (1967), and The Grand Duel (1972). He played the title role in Sabata (1969) and Return of Sabata (1971), and co-starred with Jim Brown in an Italian-American co-production, Take a Hard Ride (1975). He made two westerns with Leif Garrett in Israel, God's Gun (1976) and Kid Vengeance (1977).
Van Cleef would later have a supporting role in John Carpenter's cult film Escape from New York (1981). In 1984, he was cast as a ninja master in the NBC adventure series The Master, but it was canceled after thirteen episodes. In all, Van Cleef is credited with 90 movie roles and 109 television appearances over a 38-year span. His film characters died in many of his westerns and gangster portrayals – the record for onscreen deaths by an actor is thought to belong to John Hurt, whose characters died in 40 films.
Van Cleef was married three times. He and his first wife, Patsy Ruth Kahle, his high school sweetheart, were married December 10th, 1943, had three children, Alan, Deborah and David, and divorced in 1960. Later that year, he married his second wife, Joan Marjorie Drane, on April 9th, 1960, and adopted their daughter, Denise. He and Joan divorced in 1974. Two years later, he married his third wife, Barbara Havelone, on July 13th, 1976, to whom he remained married until his death in 1989.
Despite suffering from heart disease from the late 1970s and having a pacemaker installed in the early 1980s, Van Cleef continued to work in films until his death on December 16, 1989, at age 64. He collapsed in his home in Oxnard, California, from a heart attack. Throat cancer was listed as a secondary cause of death. Van Cleef is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, Hollywood Hills, California, with an inscription on his gravestone referring to his many acting performances as sinister, threatening characters: "BEST OF THE BAD".
Lee van Cleef's characters in the Sergio Leone movies inspired the creation of the character Elliot Belt in the Lucky Luke comic album The Bounty Hunter.
The band Primus has a song about Lee Van Cleef on their album Green Naugahyde.
The Warcraft universe sports the villain Edwin Van Cleef, who is inspired by Lee Van Cleef.
Phillip Pullman, author of the bestselling trilogy His Dark Materials, stated that the first name of his fictional American explorer, airman and crack marksman Lee Scoresby was a reference to Van Cleef, with the character's surname being an homage to the famous Arctic explorer William Scoresby.
Van Cleef was also parodied in GLC: The Carnage Continues..., a short British comedy film of the late 1980s that humorously joined British politics with Hollywood action stars. Van Cleef is portrayed by the film's director Peter Richardson, though it rather suggests Van Cleef the personage is unrealistically playing Tony Benn, a British Member of Parliament.
Van Cleef served as visual inspiration for the characters of Revolver Ocelot and Old Snake in the video game Metal Gear Solid, as well as inspiring the gunslinger personality of the former.
Italian stoner rock band Lee Van Cleef, is named after the actor.