Every Corvette is a little piece of automotive history. But this Jewel Blue '61 is also a little piece of cinematic history. The car briefly appears in the movie The Deer Hunter, a '78 Michael Cimino film about three Vietnam POW veterans and the effects their captivity has on their postwar lives. Today, the car is owned by Les Stegh of Moline, Illinois. While the Corvette made only a cameo appearance in the movie, Les is attempting to continue its long heritage of star treatment.
Ironically, the car was originally purchased in Tucson, Arizona, by a U.S. soldier. But, three months after buying the car, he was shipped overseas and had to sell it. Fortunately, this Corvette fell into the caring hands of Karen Lewis. For more than 35 years, from 1961 to 1997, Karen and her children enjoyed driving and maintaining the car. Despite seeing plenty of time on the road, it was never wrecked and was treated with the utmost care. In the late '70s, when Cimino began shooting his film about the three Clairton, Pennsylvania, boys, Karen's family was living nearby, and the Corvette was used for a few days as extra background scenery. Two items that Karen saved and eventually passed on to Les are an original brochure of the movie and a snapshot of Robert De Niro with the Corvette in the background.
The car appears near the beginning of the film; it can be seen in the background as the characters are walking through a factory parking lot. The Corvette received its 15 minutes of fame, but a few years later in 1980, Karen moved back to Arizona and took the car with her. Still, there must have been a little Hollywood left in the mid-year's veins because it underwent two facelifts, the most recent repaint coming in 1995. "As far as I know, it's always been the same color," Les says. "Everything I've taken apart looks blue." The seat covers and dashpad were also replaced somewhere along the way-regular wear and tear from years of enjoyment. Also, the original 270hp motor was pulled in 1975 and replaced by a 327 mill. So while the car's arid climate and loving owners have taken extremely good care of it, it is not bone stock.
Karen decided to sell it in 1997, and that's when Les entered the picture. She sold it to Pro Team Corvette Sales in Napoleon, Ohio, which, in turn, sold it to Les. In addition to the movie memorabilia, Karen has passed on other items related to the Corvette's past, and Les has to keep an eye on the mailbox in case a new artifact turns up. "Karen didn't keep much documentation relating to the car," Les says. "But, it is interesting that she did keep the paperwork relating to the lawsuit she filed against the outfit that last painted it. The work did not meet her expectations, considering the money she spent.
"Sometimes I'll get something unusual in the mail, like the paperwork from the lawsuit, or the time the original gas cap arrived."
Les had never seen The Deer Hunter when he bought the car. But, for curiosity's sake, he bought the movie and didn't make it very far. He says, "I watched the part with the car in it, then fast-forwarded to see if it was anywhere else, but I couldn't watch the movie. It was too graphic. I remember watching [Vietnam] when it was happening. I don't need to see any more."
Les has put around 2,000 miles on the car since he's owned it. The odometer reads about 19,000, but he doesn't know how many times it's been around-probably just once.
"I drive the car whenever possible," he says. "I've added some minor things to improve and maintain it, like the fuel pump, brakes, a new top, and window felts. I keep the original top pieces in the garage, but I rarely put the [new] top up. The car was built to be driven and enjoyed, and that's the way I treat it."
It isn't only Les' personal philosophy, it's also this car's legacy.
The MovieThe Deer Hunter stars Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, and Meryl Streep. It's the story of three friends who leave the tough, simple life of Pennsylvania steel country for the jungles of Vietnam. Captured and tortured by the Vietcong, each survivor returns home with different types of postwar trauma.
The Deer Hunter received Academy Awards for Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Walken), Directing (Michael Cimino), Film Editing (Peter Zinner), and Sound. It also received Academy Award nominations for Best Actor (De Niro), Supporting Actress (Streep), Writing, and Cinematography (Vilmos Zsigmond). Despite its outstanding, visceral portrayal of physical and psychological wounds inflicted on veterans, The Deer Hunter became somewhat infamous for its metaphoric depiction of Russian Roulette being used as torture on the captive soldiers. Subsequent occurrences of Russian-Roulette-style suicides in the U.S. were attributed (justly or unjustly) to scenes in the film.