Irvin Kershner, ‘Empire Strikes Back’ Director, Dies at 87 (update)

Director had battled lung cancer, publicist says

Irvin Kershner, who directed the first “Star Wars” sequel, "The Empire Strikes Back," has died in Los Angeles after a long battle with lung cancer, his publicist said. He was 87.

Kershner, who taught film and photography at George Lucas' alma mater, the University of Southern California, was selected by the "Star Wars" creator to helm the follow-up. He also directed "Never Say Never Again" — the last film in which Sean Connery played James Bond — and "Robocop 2."

He said he was initially taken aback when Lucas, his former student, asked him to direct the sequel to "Star Wars," his out-of-nowhere blockbuster.

"Of all the younger guys around, all the hot shots, why me?" he recalled asking. "I remember he said, 'Well, because you know everything a Hollywood director is supposed to know, but you're not Hollywood.' I liked that."

Kershner's son, David, said the director "never really retired."

"He had a powerful drive to create, whether it be through film, photography, or writing," David Kershner said. "At the time of his death, he was co-writing a Broadway musical entitled 'Djinn' and working on a documentary about his friend Ray Bradbury."

Bradbury said Kershner, widely known as "Kersh," "was an amazing man, a good friend, and I loved him with all my heart."

Kershner studied art and photography, and with 30 years' distance, the vivid colors, unusual cuts, and ample use of miniatures and matte paintings of "Empire" make it feel at times almost like an art film.

It is also the "Star Wars" film that many fans argue best combined special effects and emotion, especially in Luke Skywalker's discovery that Darth Vader is his father and the repartee between eventual lovers Han Solo and Princess Leia. "I love you," Leia says as Han is about to be frozen in carbonite. "I know," he says. It is the film's most quoted line, besides one of the most-quoted lines of all: "I am your father."

For all its unusual visuals and flat-our weirdness — or maybe because of them — the film became the highest grossing of 1980. It went on to make more than $290 million and opened the door for "Return of the Jedi" and eventually the three "Star Wars" prequels.

Born in Philadelphia in 1923, Kershner studied music before joining the Air Force as a flight engineer on B-24 bombers during World War II. He then studied art and design at the Tyler School of Fine Arts, part of Temple University, and under artist Hans Hoffman in New York City. He later moved to Los Angeles to study photography and design at the Art Center College of Design and UCLA and to work as a commercial artist. He later studied film and taught photography at USC’s School of Cinema

A job as a still photographer with a State Department film crew in Iran led to documentary work, and from 1953 to 1955 he developed, directed and shot a TV documentary series called “Confidential File.” His first feature film was a Roger Corman-produced crime drama called “Stakeout on Dope Street.” Kershner next directed “The Young Captives” (1959) and “Hoodlum Priest” (1961).

He proved adept at directing all genres, from comedy (1966's “A Fine Madness,” starring Sean Connery" to romantic dramas (1970's “Loving”) to historical adventure (1976's "The Return of the Man Called Horse") to horror (1978's “The Eyes of Laura Mars”).

"Empire" proved his mastery of fantasy/sci-fi and became the lynchpin of the entire "Star Wars" story — turning what could have been a standalone battle between good and evil into a tale of redemption spanning generations.