‘Empire Strikes Back’ director Irvin Kershner dies

Emmy-winning filmmaker also taught at USC

Helmer Irvin Kershner, who directed “The Empire Strikes Back,” died Saturday in Los Angeles of lung cancer. He was 87.

“Star Wars” helmer George Lucas turned to his mentor Kershner to direct the second film in the original saga because, he said, he wanted someone he could trust and who would give the sequel humor and maturity.

In a statement Lucas said, “I knew him from USC — I attended his lectures and he was actually on the festival panel that gave the prize to my ‘THX’ short. I considered him a mentor.”

But Kershner didn’t return to direct “The Return of the Jedi” as he found “Empire” a tough physical shoot.

On the “Empire Strikes Back” DVD, he said, “I think it went beyond ‘Star Wars.’ You had some humor, you got to know the characters a little better. I saw it as the second movement in an opera.”

In a film and TV career that spanned 40 years, Kershner worked as writer, director, cinematographer and editor. He began his film career at USC, where he took classes under Slavko Vorkapich, then dean of the film school. Kershner next accepted a job as documaker for the U.S. Information Service.

When he returned to the U.S., he worked with Paul Coates and Andrew Fenady on developing the Emmy-award winning doc series “Confidential File.” He followed that up with “The Rebel,” and worked on the pilots for “Peyton Place,” “Cain’s One Hundred” and “Philip Marlowe.”

He got his bigscreen break from Roger Corman, for whom he shot 1958’s “Stakeout on Dope Street.”

During the 1960s and ’70s, he directed stars including Sean Connery (“A Fine Madness,” “Never Say Never Again”), Robert Shaw (“The Luck of Ginger Coffey”), George C. Scott (“The Flim-Flam Man”) Eva Marie Saint (“Loving”), Barbra Streisand (“Up the Sandbox”) Richard Harris (“Return of a Man Called Horse”) and Faye Dunaway (“Eyes of Laura Mars”).

He had a penchant for sci-fi films and his credits also included “RoboCop 2” as well as “SeaQuest 2032” on TV.

In June, the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films presented Kershner with a lifetime achievement award. Lucas wrote, “(Kershner’s) films have a maturity and a depth of character, and that’s just what my middle chapter needed. The ‘Star Wars’ story has had to evolve in order to stay fresh, and it took a filmmaker like you to make that important step in galaxy-building.”

John Irving, whose novel “Setting Free the Bears” Kershner worked on adapting in 1969, said in his memoir, “My Movie Business” that Kershner was a man with a sly sense of humor, who always moved around and never sat down. “He paced, reciting the entire story, from the opening shot to the end credits, without once referring to the script.”

Kershner was also a mentor to many in Hollywood. While teaching at USC, he insisted that dramatic storytelling was important, driving home the point in his analysis of student work, according to writer-director Matthew Robbins.

“We all enjoyed knowing Kersh, learning from him,” said lifelong friend Francis Ford Coppola. “It was always exciting to talk with him about all aspects of cinema and life.”

Streisand, who kept up a friendship with the helmer since working on “Up the Sandbox” in 1972, said in a statement Kershner was “always working, always thinking, always writing, amazingly gifted and forever curious.”

In recent years, he had created a collection of fine art photographs for exhibition in New York, San Francisco and Mexico. At the time of his death, Kershner was working on a musical, “Djinn,” as well as a docu on Ray Bradbury.

Survivors include two sons.

Donations may be made to the Settlement Music School, P.O. Box 63966, Philadelphia, PA 19147.