“You have an UNCLE named BIFF? That’s so awesome.”
Then I repeat the part about him being a movie star, and thus a conversation is born. I say “movie star,” when in fact that is something of a misnomer. He was an actor in both movies and television. His list of credits is amazingly long – I’ve seen but a small percentage of his work listed on IMBD. To hear him talk about it, you’d think it was something he just dabbled in back in the 1950’s. But the Internet Movie Database doesn’t lie: Biff Elliot had a decades-long career as varied as any actor could hope for.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of recording a commentary track with Biff about his first starring role, 1953’s Mike Hammer movie I, the Jury. This movie was important in film history because Biff Elliot was the first Mike Hammer. Beyond “importance,” I, the Jury is a really good film noir that actually uses 3-D in a non-gimmicky way.
At first Biff was skeptical of the endeavor; I think he agreed to do it for me. But as the recording got underway, he was slowly won over by the then 50-year-old film. He got past the flaws any artist sees about his work and was able to appreciate the performances of his co-stars, the direction, and even a bit of his own acting flair. I was particularly moved when he described the decision for his character to shed a few tears at a climactic moment. Back in the 50’s, this was considered blaspheme: a man doesn’t cry. From the perspective of a new millennium, I found the scene played just right. A man who doesn’t cry isn’t tough – he’s a sociopath.
That commentary track – one of the best I’ve heard, and I’m an admitted DVD junkie – sits unused on my computer’s hard drive. It is in turns enlightening, engaging, and damn funny. Biff alternates between background information on the production and personal stories, with a little bit of acting advice sprinkled in for good measure. Biff is a champion talker. I knew going in that he wouldn’t run out of things to say, but I was surprised at the variety and depth of his topics. I had made a list of questions in case things got quiet, but quickly found I wouldn’t need them.
I am enraged I, the Jury has never been released on DVD. When every Rob Schneider movie ever made is available at the nearest Wal-Mart, why can’t a genuinely GOOD movie make it to the market? Mickey Spillane, the author of the Mike Hammer books, most likely didn’t allow the movie to be re-released in his lifetime. He even remade the movie in the 80’s because he was a giant egomaniac. But now Spillane’s ego is long gone, and good riddance. It’s time for Biff Elliot and I, the Jury to be reappraised by the public. That the film is locked away in some collector’s vault, only taken out for special occasions, is heartbreaking.
Biff’s career in television begs further research, but I want to highlight just one role today. You see, Biff was one of the ill-fated “red-shirts” in the original series of Star Trek. For those of you unfamiliar, a red-shirt is a guy who dies before the opening credits in an episode. This is a small but important role: the red-shirt dies, thus setting the plot into action. Without a dead guy, there would be nothing interesting. The whole episode would be Kirk and Spock playing chess.
Following is a summary of the fan-favorite episode Devil in the Dark:
Schmitter (played with aplomb by Biff) is the first miner we see the rock monster kill. His unfortunate fate gets Kirk and crew excited enough to go exploring on Janus Six. Eventually, Schmitter’s death is attributed to a great misunderstanding between the miners and the rock monster. I won’t give away the ending, but you can bet it is resolved in true Trek fashion: a fight, followed by a bit of inter-species diplomacy.
Hollywood is full of actors unknown in spite of their greatness; Biff Elliot is one. I hope this blog can bring a greater awareness of Biff’s career. And can we get someone to release I, the Jury? I’ve got a commentary track that needs to be heard.