'Empire Strikes Back' Director Irvin Kershner Dies

© Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

He was 87 when he passed away Saturday in Los Angeles after battling lung cancer for 3 1/2 years.


Irvin Kershner, who directed The Empire Strikes Back, the 1980 landmark sequel to George Lucas’ original Star Wars film, died Saturday at his Los Angeles home after a 3 1/2-year battle with lung cancer. He was 87.

During his four-decade career, Kershner used his eye for photography and his ear for music to helm George C. Scott in The Flim-Flam Man (1967), Barbra Streisand in Up the Sandbox (1972), Faye Dunaway in Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), Richard Harris in The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976) and Sean Connery in the film that returned the actor to the James Bond role for a curtain call, Never Say Never Again (1983).

“He had the most incredible spirit, an exuberance for life,” Streisand said. “Always working, always thinking, always writing, amazingly gifted and forever curious. We met doing ‘Up the Sandbox’ in 1972 and remained friends ever since. I loved him.”

Kershner’s first feature was the Roger Corman-financed Stakeout on Dope Street (1958), which he co-wrote and directed. Other credits included Hoodlum Priest (1961) with Don Murray, The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1964) with Robert Shaw, A Fine Madness with Connery (1966), Loving (1970) with Eva Marie Saint, the 1976 telefilm Raid on Entebbe, for which he earned an Emmy nomination, and RoboCop 2 (1990).

With Paul Coates and Andrew Fenady, Kershner developed the Emmy-winning 1950s documentary series Confidential File, working as a writer, director, cinematographer and editor. He later developed and directed the series The Rebel as well as the pilots for Peyton Place, Cain’s Hundred and Philip Marlowe, Private Eye.

Lucas attended Kershner’s lectures at USC and said that following 1977’s Star Wars, he “knew one thing for sure: I didn’t want to direct the second movie myself. I needed someone I could trust, someone I really admired and whose work had maturity and humor. That was Kersh all over.

“I didn’t want Empire to turn into just another sequel, another episode in a series of space adventures. I was trying to build something, and I knew Kersh was the guy to help me do it. He brought so much to the table. I am truly grateful to him.”

Kershner told Vanity Fair in October that he tried to give the sequel more depth than the original.

“When I finally accepted the assignment, I knew that it was going to be a dark film, with more depth to the characters than in the first film,” he said. “It took a few years for the critics to catch up with the film and to see it as a fairy tale rather than a comic book.”

Kershner as a youngster studied violin, viola and composition. He studied at the Settlement Music School in his native Philadelphia and went on to attend the Tyler School of Fine Arts at Temple University.

Later, he went to New York and Provincetown, Mass., to study with the Abstract Expressionist painter Hans Hofmann, then moved to Los Angeles, where he studied photography at the Art Center College of Design.

Kershner began his film career at USC’s School of Cinema teaching photography and taking cinema courses under Slavko Vorkapich, a montage artist who was then dean of the School of Cinema. Kershner next accepted a job as a still photographer on a State Department film project in Iran under the Four Point Program, which led to an assignment as a director and cinematographer of documentaries in Iran, Greece and Turkey with the U.S. Information Service.

In recent years, Kershner continued to produce and write while teaching screenwriting at USC and lecturing in many countries. He created a collection of fine art photographs for exhibition in New York, San Francisco and Mexico, and some of his work now exists as a permanent exhibition at the newly opened Los Angeles County General Hospital.

In June, Kershner received a lifetime achievement award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films. At the time of his death, he was working on a documentary about his friend, writer Ray Bradbury, and a musical called Djinn, about the friendship between a Jewish immigrant and an Arab sheik in Palestine before it became Israel, his son David Kershner said.

Survivors include another son, Dana Kershner.

There will be no funeral. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Settlement Music School or the San Juan Preservation Trust on Lopez Island, Wash.