My great uncle Biff Elliot died today. He was 89.
Biff, as readers of this blog will know, was the original Mike Hammer. His starring role in I, the Jury proved to the world that a Jew could be a tough and daring private eye. Far from making Mike Hammer a one-note pulp fiction character, Biff infused his character with just the right mixture of toughness and fragility. If you watch any detective movie today, you’ll see a similar blend of these elements: the man who knows when to use his fists and when to use his words. That unique formulation may have been lost on audiences in 1953, as Biff was not asked to play Hammer again, but today it is the norm.
Biff went on to a career in both movies and TV. He had a small part in the fan-favorite Star Trek episode “Devil in the Dark” in which he was devoured by a rock monster. In the Planet of the Apes TV series, he played a human slave to the talking apes. I am told he also got to play an orangutan, but could not tell you which orangutan was him. In the movie The True Story of Jesse James, he played a member of the gang in their glory days. He was a regular on season five of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and had a recurring role in Mission: Impossible. Biff played all his parts with a depth that a lesser actor could never have achieved.
I only recently began seeking out Biff’s many appearances on the screen. Growing up, I remember him as the uncle who would talk your ear off at every family reunion. He always had a few dozen things to tell you, and at the end he’d make sure you knew how much he loved you and how much you meant to him. When I got to visit him in California, he would take me out. He drove me in his bright yellow Mini to see the Hollywood sign, Disney studios (with the building in the shape of a wizard’s hat), the Kodak Theater, the one public bowling alley in Hollywood – the famous and the not-so-famous landmarks.
Wherever we went, it seemed, he knew somebody. I remember going out to eat with him and my aunt Connie. The owner of the restaurant came out to say hello, and ended up giving us hats and shirts with the restaurant’s logo on them. In a town of fake friendships, Biff created genuine bonds with just about everyone he met.
I am glad there is an audio/visual record of Biff’s existence in the world, but I am much more glad to have known him. He was the youngest of three brothers – my grandfather the potato-sack manufacturer (and the person who taught me to love the Sunday funnies), Win the TV and radio sportscaster, and Biff the actor and (unverified) one-time flyweight boxing champion of Maine. The world will not see another trio with as much wit and warmth, and is the poorer for their loss.