While Kershner will be best remembered for directing what is arguably the best of the Star Wars films, the Philadelphia native had a varied career that earned the respect and admiration of many who worked with him.
The USC film school graduate was given his break into directing by B-movie mogul Roger Corman. He would go on to direct episodic television for several years before making small, mostly independent films. He directed Raid on Entebbe in 1976, an excellent television film that told the true story of the rescue of Israeli hostages held by terrorists in Uganda. The film earned Kershner an Emmy nomination for directing.
He directed Faye Dunaway in The Eyes of Laura Mars in 1978 before George Lucas asked him to direct Empire. Lucas was Kershner’s student at USC and wanted a director without a Hollywood studio mindset, which suited his independent style.
Kershner would go on to direct the James Bond movie Never Say Never Again in 1983 and Robocop 2 in 1990. He later voiced displeasure with the Robocop sequel, saying producers did not allow him the opportunity to delve into the main character’s humanity as he wanted. He was so upset with the final direction of the film that he admits to only watching the finished film twice. He retired in 1993 after directing an episode of Seaquest DSV.
Kershner liked to explore human nature in his films, which is one of the reasons The Empire Strikes Back resonates with fans. His use of closeups and focus on character development grounded the fantasy film with a humanity that endeared the characters to viewers, including bringing a Muppet named Yoda to life.
While he didn’t achieve the acclaim he deserved during his career, his status as a director grew as time went on. In recent years, Kershner’s direction of Empire earned him an iconic status among fans, and his indelible mark on the original trilogy will not be forgotten.
“The world has lost a great director and one of the most genuine people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Irvin Kershner was a true gentleman in every sense of the word,” George Lucas said in a statement.
Kershner was 87 when he died of complications from lung cancer at his home in Los Angeles.