This is the first installment of a 4-part series and will run in 4 consecutive weeks. The series is a running account of the Shalek families, along with the Etscovitz families, whose fame and business establishments in Presque Isle are being forgotten. We need to revisit these people from 50 years ago and, indeed, rediscover their uncommon accomplishments. We'll began with Biff Elliot, who, in the early 1950's through to the 1980's made good in the movie and TV industries. Biff's brother, Win, also made national fame in the '50's and 60's and the third brother, Stan, stayed home and ran the family business, the Shalek Bag Co..
In 1939, family patriarch, Jack Shalek, and his wife, Sue, moved to Presque Isle from the Boston area. Jack had already been in the burlap bag business in that area, but the nature of the bag business had changed (explained later) and the Shalek family found it advantageous to be in the County and supply farmers with the appropriate bags to ship potatoes to the Boston markets for national distribution.
Biff, born 1923 in Lynn, MA., along with his brother, Stan, moved with the family and continued their high school educations here. Biff, whose real name was (still is) Leon Shalek, graduated from P.I. High School in 1942 along with some well-known Presque Isleans such as Al Weinberg, Arlene Hardy, Joyce Cotton, Dorothy Quass, Emery Skillins, Joan Allen, Nan Hunter and others too numerous to name. Biff went on to serve in the armed forces during WW11 and fought in the Italian campaign. After the war he attended the University of Maine and graduated in 1949. In the very early '50's, Biff settled in NY City to seek his fame and fortune in the TV industry. It was common in those days to 'Americanize' one''s name in the fields of broadcasting and acting. Leon had always been called 'Biff' by his family and when acting opportunities arose, it was suggested that he assume a name that would be well accepted and easier to pronounce. He chose the name 'Elliot' after the last name his equally famous brother, Win Elliot, had taken for the sports broadcasting business (explained later). Win's full name had been Irwin Elliot Shalek.
While doing TV in NYC, Biff was spotted by the attorney for the producer of a movie based on a story by Mickey Spillane called, 'I, The Jury' and was summoned for a screen tryout in Hollywood. He landed with ease the role of Mike Hammer after competing with 200 other contestants. The movie was a black and white, 3-D version, co-starred Peggy Castle and debuted in 1953. I have made many attempts to rent or purchase this movie, but, alas, have been unsuccessful. There were several 'Mike Hammer' movie sequels without Elliot; he missed on the series that followed because of a contract debacle. In studying his filmography, I found that Biff had parts in 25 movies including 'Pork Chop Hill' (1959) and 'PT-109' (1963), a true story about JFK and his command of a PT boat in WW11 starring Cliff Robertson. His last movie, 'That's Life' (1986), starred Jack Lemmon who, by the way, was one of Biff's best friends since the early days in show biz together in NYC. They were frequent golf partners until Lemmon's death just a few years ago.
But movies were not the only medium in which Biff work extensively. He made no less than 28 notable TV guest appearances including 'Chips', 'Cannon', 'Mission Impossible', 'Star Trek', 'Dick Van Dyke Show', 'Perry Mason' and the last being 'Starman' (1986).
Biff is alive and well at age 79. He lives in Studio City, CA with his wife, Connie, within eyesight of Universal Studio. According to his niece, Ellen Shalek Heymann (PIHS class of 65) who has been most instrumental in providing me with pertinent information about her famous uncle, Biff is a great uncle and still is a 'character', full of life and humor. Many thanks also to Martha Hanson LaPointe (PIHS class of '65) of this city for making for me the connection to Ellen for without whom this article would have been sadly incomplete.
Part #2 in this 4-part series will appear in next issue of the Star-Herald. It will outline the life of Biff''s also famous brother, Win. As usual, if readers have any information to add to past or future articles, please e-mail me at RAG111@webtv.net or call my office at 764-3185.....
last updated : April 27, 2011