Irvin Kershner, best known to fandom as director of the “Star Wars” sequel “The Empire Strikes Back” as well as “Robocop 2” and episodes of the television series “seaQuest DSV,” has died after a three-year battle with lung cancer. He was 87.
“The world has lost a great director and one of the most genuine people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing,” director George Lucas said in a statement, referring to Kershner as a “mentor.” “[He] was a true gentleman in every sense of the word.”
A Philadelphia native, Kerschner studied at the Settlement Music School before attending the Tyler School of Fine Arts at Temple University and the Art Center College of Design here in Los Angeles. He began his film career at USC’s School of Cinema teaching photography and taking cinema courses.
After working on documentary projects, Kerschner moved into feature films, including the critically acclaimed made-for-TV movie “Raid on Entebbe.”
Lucas attended Kershner’s lectures at USC in the 1960s, according to Hollywood Reporter, 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, who focused on character development, was reluctant to direct “Empire.” When Lucas asked him to work on the project, Kershner initially refused, citing his belief that a sequel would never meet the quality of the original. However, Kershner’s agent demanded he take the job.
“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 told Vanity Fair.
Kershner said he had only one sharp disagreement with Lucas during the filming of “Empire,” Haaretz reports. “The script originally called for the heroine, Princess Leia, to tell space pilot Han Solo I love you and for him to reply I love you, too.”
“I shot the line and it just didn’t seem right for the character of Han Solo,” Kershner said.
Instead, actor Harrison Ford improvised the reply: I know.
While Kershner acknowledged his Jewish heritage, he considered himself an internationalist.
“I’ve been a student of Christianity. I’ve been interested in the historical basis of the Muslim religion. I studied Buddhism. I don’t think of myself as a Jew except by birth, as I don’t follow the customs. I’m a Jew because other people consider me so. My pride is in being international.”