Biff Elliot

Active - 1953 - 1986  |   Born - Jul 26, 1923   |   Died - Aug 15, 2012   |   Genres - Drama, War, Comedy, Spy Film, Crime

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Biography by Bruce Eder

Relatively few people remember the name Biff Elliot today, but as an actor, he carved a special place for himself in popular culture during the '50s -- in a role that he spent years living down. Born Leon Shalek in Lynn, MA, a working-class town, he aspired to an acting career and came to New York in pursuit of that goal. He got some stage and television work, mostly playing tough, working-class characters, and then a seemingly big break in Hollywood playing the lead role in the crime thriller I, The Jury (1953), directed by Harry Essex. In the history of popular culture, Ralph Meeker might have earned a place playing Mike Hammer in the best movie ever made from one of Mickey Spillane's books; Spillane himself may have played the best Mike Hammer on the big-screen (and Brian Keith the best Mike Hammer on the small-screen); but Biff Elliot had the honor of being the first actor to portray Mike Hammer anywhere in that 1953 movie (made in 3-D) based on the first of the Hammer books. It should have been a breakthrough role, but the movie ended up being an albatross around his neck.

Over the next few years, there were other offers for more roles in which, in the manner of Spillane's hero, he was mostly pummeling other characters. Elliot did get some film work in movies such as Between Heaven and Hell, Good Morning, Miss Dove, and The Enemy Below (as the ship's quartermaster) at Fox, and Pork Chop Hill for Lewis Milestone at United Artists, but mostly he worked in television. In 1959, Elliot got a seemingly good break when playwright Clifford Odets happened to see I, The Jury and offered him a role in The Story on Page One, which Odets wrote and directed. Alas, the latter movie fizzled -- mostly thanks to Odets's convoluted approach to directing -- and did nothing to help the career of anyone in it. Elliot was mostly seen on television over the next decade or so in roles of varying sizes -- in the Star Trek episode "The Devil in the Dark" as Schmitter, the mining colony crewman joking about the anticipated arrival of the Starship Enterprise who is dissolved by the title creature in the pre-credit sequence. During the '70s and '80s, he was once again seen regularly in movies, including the Jack Lemmon vehicles Save the Tiger (1973), The Front Page (1975) and That's Life (1986). Elliot died of natural causes at age 89 in 2012.

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