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In Memoriam:
Irvin Kershner
By Bruce Weber

November 29, 2010

Irvin Kershner, a film director who made name-brand Hollywood movies with name-brand Hollywood stars — including “The Empire Strikes Back,” the second film in the original “Star Wars” trilogy — without ever becoming a name brand himself, died at his home in Los Angeles on Saturday. He was 87.

The cause was complications of cancer, his son David said.

Mr. Kershner was a tall man with long, angular features whose authority on the set was leavened with wit and good humor; The New York Times once described him as “court jester, cheerleader and undisputed boss all at once” and as “Ichabod Crane with humanity.”

His résumé, if not always glittering, was more than respectable, with films in a variety of genres that earned critical plaudits if not always popular acclaim and that often found him working with major stars.

His early films included a realistic drama about a downtrodden family man, “The Luck of Ginger Coffey,” with Robert Shaw in the title role; “The Flim-Flam Man,” a loopy picaresque tale starring George C. Scott as a roving, roguish card sharp with the sheriff (Harry Morgan) at his heels; an offbeat social satire, “A Fine Madness,” which starred an unlikely Sean Connery, in the midst of his run as James Bond, as a seedy, blocked poet; “Loving,” a sweetly despairing comedy about a suburban couple in midlife, starring George Segal and Eva Marie Saint; “Up the Sandbox,” in which Barbra Streisand played a stifled Manhattan housewife engaging in ever more outlandish fantasies; and “The Return of a Man Called Horse,” a western starring Richard Harris.

He also directed a television film, “Raid on Entebbe” (1977), based on the real-life hostage-rescue mission in 1976 in which Israeli special forces rescued passengers on a plane in Uganda.

Mr. Kershner later worked on a number of big-budget films, including the supernatural thriller “The Eyes of Laura Mars” (1978), which starred Faye Dunaway as a haughty and evidently clairvoyant fashion photographer who has visions of murder; the cyborg crime flick “RoboCop 2” (1990); and, reuniting with Mr. Connery, who was returning to the role that had made him famous, “Never Say Never Again” (1983).

Mr. Kershner was the only person to direct both a “Star Wars” film and a James Bond film, but even he thought he was an unlikely choice to direct “Empire,” the now-highly regarded 1980 follow-up to “Star Wars” (1977), George Lucas’s colossally successful intergalactic shoot-’em-up. Mr. Lucas had been Mr. Kershner’s student at the University of Southern California film school, and the two had remained friends. Even so, Mr. Kershner turned down Mr. Lucas’s offer at first, until, as he recalled in a public interview at the Colorado Film School, Mr. Lucas told him the future of the series was at stake.

“ ‘Well, I want you to think about it,’ he says,” Mr. Kershner related, “ ‘because if the second one works, then I’ll make more.’ He says, ‘If it doesn’t work, that’s the end of “Star Wars.” ’ ”

After extracting a promise that Mr. Lucas would give him freedom to make his own picture, Mr. Kershner accepted. The result was a film that introduced the gnomish character Yoda, who supervises the Jedi training of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) while Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) and the villainous galactic empire pursue the spunky band of heroes including Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) from “Star Wars” as well as a new character, Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams. It is the film in which Darth Vader reveals he is Luke’s father, and in which Leia tells Han she loves him, only to be told in return, “I know.”

According to the Web site Box Office Mojo, the film took in more than $538 million in worldwide box-office receipts, ranking it 69th on the list of highest-earning films in history.

Isadore Kershner was born in Philadelphia on April 29, 1923. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, where Isadore’s two older sisters were born. His father, Morris, supported the family selling fruits and vegetables from a street cart. Young Isadore studied music and art; he played the viola and the violin and attended the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. He also studied photography at the Art Center College of Design in Southern California.

He changed his name to Irvin after serving in the Army Air Forces as an airplane mechanic and flight engineer during World War II. His first moviemaking job was as a documentarian for the United States Information Service in Iran, Greece and Turkey. His first feature film, “Stakeout on Dope Street” (1958), was partly financed by the B-movie mogul Roger Corman.

Mr. Kershner was married and divorced twice. He is survived by two sons, David, of Los Angeles, and Dana, of Lummi Island, Wash.

“I considered him a mentor,” Mr. Lucas said in a statement after Mr. Kershner’s death. “Following ‘Star Wars,’ I 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,” he said. “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.”

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