Irvin Kershner, renowned film director who may be best known for helming STAR WARS’ brooding and brilliant sequel THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, died Saturday after a long illness according to a family friend.
Kershner, a graduate of USC film school, began his career producing documentaries for the U.S. Information Services in the Middle East before he became one of the many burgeoning directors to get his break from low-budget producer Roger Corman.
After directing many episodic shows in television, Kershner moved into feature films directing the likes of George C. Scott in THE FLIM-FLAM MAN (1967), Barbra Streisand in UP THE SANDBOX (1972), and Richard Harris in THE RETURN OF A MAN CALLED HORSE. Kershner earned an Emmy nomination in 1976 for directing the widely acclaimed TV movie RAID ON ENTEBBE about the hijacking of an Air France flight and the daring Israeli military rescue of 100 passengers.
Kershner followed directing Faye Dunaway in the thriller EYES OF LAURA MARS with his hiring by George Lucas to direct THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in 1980, which remains Kershner’s biggest box office success of his lengthy career. Undaunted by the task of following up 1977’s STAR WARS, then the highest grossing film of all time, “Kersh” invested the sequel with skilled character study and interplay in the difficult middle chapter of the original trilogy of films in the series. The result was a more matured, personal adventure in the STAR WARS universe which revealed one of the greatest plot twists from one of cinema’s most iconic screen villains. For many years to follow EMPIRE stood second behind STAR WARS as a top-grossing film and still ranks among the top 100 grossing films in the world.
In 1983 Kershner followed the blockbuster with Sean Connery’s return as James Bond in NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN, and in 1990 directed another part two sequel ROBOCOP 2, his last feature film before retiring as a director in 1993.
Personally, I consider THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK my favorite and the best of the STAR WARS saga films because, as a fan, it touched the deepest emotional chords in my life. In May of 1980 I was on the verge of graduating high school and EMPIRE perfectly mirrored that wistful sense of adventure and uncertainty ahead both for its characters and myself. It was the darkest and most difficult episode to pull off for a director on its own terms, forgetting the enormous audience and industry pressure that his film live up to STAR WARS’ unprecedented success around the globe. Yet Kershner refused to play it safe, always demanding more from the script and working hard with stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher to mine more depth from their characters more complex interplay. The result was a crucial success which literally paved the way for the STAR WARS series to continue and for George Lucas to build his own filmmaking empire as storyteller, producer and technical innovator.
Irvin Kershner stamped his signature and filmmaking sensibility on a brand-name franchise that will ensure his immortality in cinema and pop culture history, an achievement highlighting his long and respected career. He will be missed but his work serves his memory well, and FilmEdge joins fans around the world in remembering and thanking Irvin Kershner.
UPDATED: This is a tribute clip from a longer interview with Irvin Kershner which expresses the director’s insights into life and the work he left behind him for all to enjoy.