EDWARDSVILLE — When director Richard Taylor got a call asking if he had a reel copy of the 1978 movie, “Stingray,” he replied, “Sure. It’s in my garage.”
“Let me say if you want to preserve a copy of a film, Richard’s garage is not the place,” Skipper Martin told a crowd of nearly 400 Saturday evening following a screening of what has become a cult classic at the Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville.
Martin, who works for Universal Studios, also freelances for Severin Films, a firm that releases hard to find films.
“I restore old films,” he said.
The path to restoring “Stingray” was a strange one, indeed.
The film, shot in and around Edwardsville in 1977, was a mix of local and professional talent and joined the talents of two products of the Southern Illinois University system. Taylor, who wrote and directed the film, ran the film department at SIU-E. SIU-C’s contribution was graduate Les Lannom, who starred as “Elmo” in the film, alongside Christopher Mitchum, son of the late acting great, Robert Mitchum.
The third wheel in the puzzle was the friendship between Martin’s mother, Kory, and actress, Sherry Jackson, who starred as “Abigail” in the film.
Martin said that growing up, he and is brothers had an old VHS copy of the film recorded “on an old VHS top loader” from SelecTV.
“It was one of about a dozen and we literally wore it out watching it,” said Martin.
Martin’s brother, Scotty, was waiting tables in a Los Angeles restaurant when he heard a voice that struck a familiar chord.
“He turned to this guy and said, ‘Sorry to bother you but were you in Stingray?’ Les Lannom himself turns and says, ‘Stingray? How do you know Stingray?'”
Martin said the two became friends.
Martin said his offer to donate his services to restore the film in exchange for Severin’s release was readily accepted.
That decision was obviously popular, judging from the capacity crowd that packed Edwardsville Wildey Theatre Saturday night for a 40th anniversary screening, buoyed by a chance to meet some of the actors from the film.
Lannom was the only top-billed star to make an appearance.
“I was 30 when I filmed it,” said Lannom, now semiretired at 72 and living in his hometown of Johnston City.
With six years of steady work and appearances next to Hollywood greats like Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman on his resume, Lannom said he didn’t hesitate in accepting the role.
“I was excited to come home and make a film in my own backyard,” he said.
While Taylor had a few problems bridging the gap between professionals and local amateur talent, Lannom had nothing but praise for his fellow performers.
“Whatever misgivings anyone had being a professional and working with the nonprofessionals, that melted right away,” said Lannom. “They were good actors. If they hadn’t done any film, they picked up on it awfully quick. They were absolutely on top of their game.”
He did say the project was a learning experience for everyone. That also included Taylor, who had never directed a feature film.
“We did this one scene in a cornfield,” Lannom told the audience during a question/answer session following the film. “Because of the turn around from Edwardsville to Los Angeles, the dailies were weeklies.”
Lannom said when those came back, Taylor decided he needed another shot in the cornfield.
“We loaded everyone up and drove 30 or so minutes back to the field. I guess the farmer didn’t get the memo because the corn was harvested,” Lannom said with a grin.
He also recounted one stunt mishap during the filming.
“They blew up this building that I was running by,” he said. “It was a bigger explosion than anyone anticipated and it doggone near took my head off.”
Lannom said the cinder block fragmented, luckily, because it would “have taken my head off,” but it blew sand in both eyes and embedded it in his ear, face, neck, shoulder and arm.
“Thank goodness Sherry wore contacts,” he said. “She took me in the trailer and flushed out my eyes with saline solution.”
He then spent several hours in a local emergency room where doctors picked out sand and block fragments from his skin.
Lannom had nothing but praise for Taylor as a director.
“It was a true Cinderella story,” he said. “He had never done a feature but he learned quickly.”
Taylor, whose experience had been doing documentaries and publicity films for SIU-E, ended up being what he described as a “one-man show” before the project was over.
“I wrote, produced, edited, supervised sound, and directed,” he said. “There were times where I was partially suicidal, but it was a blast.”
Bert Hinchman played “Tony,” one of the bad guys, alongside Chicago native, William Watson, as “Lonigan.”
“It was my first opportunity to do a starring role with well-known, established actors,” he said.
Hinchman said he quickly learned the difference between stage and film.
“You have to trust the director, the script, and the other actors,” he said. “I was nervous, but I worked hard, concentrated, and stayed on point.”
Hinchman spent 35 years working as a character actor in Hollywood before a heart attack and subsequent surgery sidelined his career six years ago.
He now resides in the Indianapolis area.
Martin said that getting the film ready was a family affair. He and his brother, Randy, worked on the color restoration, as well as hiring a third person to come in and finish the job. They both worked on attempting to locate the holder of the rights to the film. When that failed, they were told to schedule a screening in hopes that the person would see it and make contact.
“We used Richard’s director’s cut, which had more scenes than the originally screened film,” he said. “We tagged it as ’40th Anniversary Garage Edition’ as a tribute to where it came from,” he added with a grin.
The screening was a huge success. Everyone who attended received a Blu-ray copy of the movie, signed by Jackson prior to the event as she was unable to attend.
The other actors in attendance spent nearly two hours following the movie, autographing the discs, as well as posters that were sold during the event.
Robin Payne of Bunker Hill drove nearly 40 miles to attend.
“This is so exciting,” she said, as Lannom autographed her disc. “I’ve been a fan for a long time.”
Lannom summed up the sentiments of the actors as they met for a last photo next to a Corvette Stringray, parked in front of the theatre for the event.
“It was a joy and thrill to be able to be here,” he said.