Photography and art were the launching pads for director Irvin Kershner's career; he studied both extensively as well as tackled documentaries in the 1950s before making his feature debut with "Stakeout on Dope Street" (1958), a gritty crime drama for producer Roger Corman, which in turn led to numerous jobs on episodic television and in more independent features. Kershner's feature work was distinguished by his ability to mine realistic and intimate human drama from his stories, and for finding idiosyncratic takes on nearly every genre - from comedies like "A Fine Madness" (1966) and intimate dramas such as "Loving" (1970), to horror flicks like "The Eyes of Laura Mars" (1978) and historical adventures including "The Return of a Man Called Horse" (1976). His biggest box office success was the "Star Wars" sequel, "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), which benefited greatly from his mature direction. Kershner also maintained side careers as a producer, educator and occasional actor, but it was his work helming the darkest and most critically lauded of the "Star Wars" trilogy that would be his greatest legacy.
Born April 29, 1923, Kershner's educational background was rich in a variety of arts. He studied music and composition at an early age before serving as an Air Force flight engineer on B-24 bombers during World War II. After returning to civilian life, he studied art and design at Temple University's Tyler School of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, PA, and art under painter Hans Hoffman in New York City. In 1948, he moved to Los Angeles to study design and photography at the Art Center College of Design and UCLA while supporting himself as a commercial artist. Kershner later took up film studies at USC's School of Cinema, where he also taught courses in photography. While there, he accepted a job as a still photographer on a state department film project in Iran, which led to directing documentaries on the Middle East and Europe for the United States Information Service in 1950. From 1953 to 1955, he developed and directed a documentary series for television called "Confidential File," which recreated events in the news. He made his feature debut with a low budget juvenile crime drama called "Stakeout on Dope Street," which featured a script by veteran writer Andrew J. Fenady and a young cast culled from the ranks of producer Roger Corman's talent pool. Praised for its realistic locations and direction, it allowed Kershner to direct two more well-received urban crime dramas, "The Young Captives" (1959) and "Hoodlum Priest" (1961), with Don Murray as Father Charles Clark, a man who preached to inner city street gangs. The latter was nominated for two awards, including the Golden Palm, at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival.
Kershner moved to episodic television in the early sixties; he helped develop and direct "The Rebel" (ABC, 1959-1961), a cult drama with Nick Adams as a Confederate Army vet who wanders the American West. More TV work preceded his fourth film, an offbeat World War II drama called "Face in the Rain" (1963), which starred Rory Calhoun as an American spy trapped in the home of an underground contact whose wife is having an affair with a Nazi officer. He had more success with its follow-up, a Canadian-made drama called "The Luck of Ginger Coffey" (1964), with Robert Shaw as an Irish immigrant who struggles to keep his family together after moving to Montreal. Shaw's performance and Kershner's direction were widely praised by the arthouse press. Kershner followed this with "A Fine Madness" (1966), a wry comedy starring Sean Connery - in the midst of his popularity as James Bond -as a poet who seeks a cure for his mental block from a string of unconventional psychiatrists. A modest success at the box office, it later developed a cult following. "Madness," along with its successor, "The Flim-Flam Man" (1967), cemented Kershner's fascination with offbeat heroes with a rebellious streak; "Flim-Flam" starred George C. Scott as a con artist who teams with an AWOL GI (Michael Sarrazin) to execute elaborate schemes on a series of Southerners. It too found a small but devoted audience in later years.
"Loving" (1970) earned Kershner his best reviews and ticket sales prior to "Empire." An intelligent and mature comedy about the pressures of marriage and career, it starred George Segal as an enterprising if unhappy commercial artist who throws his life into disarray after an ill-advised affair. Very well-received by the mainstream critical press, it ushered Kershner into the Hollywood fold, where he stumbled mightily with his first big-budget features. "Up the Sandbox" (1972) was a confusing blend of fantasy and realistic drama, with Barbra Streisand as a young wife and mother who escapes her dreary life through a series of bizarre fantasies. It was largely ignored at the box office, as was "S*P*Y*S" (1974), an ill-advised reunion of "M*A*S*H" (1970) stars Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould in a dark comedy about espionage.
Kershner also developed the gruesome Western drama "A Man Called Horse" (1970), but was removed from the project and not credited for his contributions to the screenplay. He was, however, tapped to direct the 1976 sequel, "Return of a Man Called Horse," which brought back star Richard Harris as the 19th century Englishman who endures torture at the hands of his Native American captives and eventually joins their tribe. In "Return," he discovers that his adoptive tribe has been enslaved by trappers and seeks revenge for their crimes. The show-stopping purification ritual of the original "Horse," which featured Harris hanging from the ceiling of a sweat lodge by hooks that pierced his chest, was repeated here to great effect. Kershner followed this with "Raid on Entebbe" (1977), a much-acclaimed TV movie that depicted the planning and execution of Operation Thunderbolt, in which Israeli commandos rescued a planeload of passengers hijacked by Palestinian terrorists who were sheltered by notorious Ugandan president Idi Amin. An all-star production with Charles Bronson, James Woods and Peter Finch (in his final screen appearance) in its cast, it was a winner with critics and audiences alike, and netted a Golden Globe and an Emmy for its technical aspects. An additional nine nominations were given to its cast and production team, including one for Kershner.
The director returned to features with "The Eyes of Laura Mars" (1978), an eerie if offbeat supernatural thriller about a fashion photographer (Faye Dunaway) who experiences visions of her colleague's deaths. Glossy and violent, the film received mixed reviews from the press, but the subject matter and the presence of recent Oscar winner Dunaway made it a modest box office hit. A rough cut of the film was screened by George Lucas, who then contacted Kershner about directing the follow-up to "Star Wars" (1977). Kershner initially refused the job, citing that he could never top the level of excitement generated by "Star Wars." Pressure from his agent and from Lucas - who was a former student of his at USC - convinced him to tackle the massive project, "The Empire Strikes Back." Kershner surprised many by delivering a sequel that lived up to the much-loved predecessor and improved upon it in many ways. Chief among its virtues was the level of writing and performances - legendary screenwriter Leigh Brackett of "The Big Sleep" (1945) fame completed an early draft before dying of cancer in 1978, leaving Lawrence Kasdan to finish subsequent drafts. Kershner's knack for finding intimate drama in the most unlikely of places could be credited for the emotional resonance of the romantic scenes between Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford), as well as the force-fueled connection between Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and his master, Yoda, a puppet voiced and operated by Frank Oz. A massive hit with fans of the original and newcomers alike, "Empire" was the highest grossing film of 1980 and one of the top 50 money earners of all time.
Longtime admirers of Kershner's films worried that "Empire" would signal a shift for the director towards more impersonal big-budget fare - and for the most part, his post-"Empire" efforts were along those lines. He reunited with his "Fine Madness" star Sean Connery for "Never Say Never Again" (1983), which marked the actor's return to James Bond, the role which had earned him enduring stardom. But the results were mixed, as the picture never seemed to gel as either a spoof or a straight action-drama. This was also the case for Kershner's "RoboCop 2" (1990), which bulldozed the first film's mix of black humor and action with blunt violence and bad taste. In between both films, Kershner also found time to act, starring as Zebedee, the father of the apostles John and James, in Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988).He returned to television by directing the premiere episode of the NBC action-adventure series, "seaQuest DSV" (1993-96), which was a notable hit for a few years.
As Kershner grew older, the projects grew fewer and farther between, though he found time to represent "Empire" whenever "Star Wars" retrospectives occurred, including sitting by as Lucasfilm altered his original work with new CGI effects for the "The Empire Strikes Back: Special Edition" (1997) version - though it was a testament to Kershner's quality filmmaking that "Empire" was the least retouched by Lucas of the original trilogy. A proposed 1995 remake of the science fiction classic "Forbidden Planet" (1956) never came to light, so Kershner kept active as an executive producer on several independent features in the 1990s. He also worked on several photography projects, and lectured extensively at festivals and colleges, including his alma mater USC, where he served as faculty for the Master of Professional Writing program. In May 2010, movie fans celebrated the 30th anniversary of "Empire" with nationwide screenings and a lavish coffee table book on the making of the beloved epic, which Kersher contributed his recollections to. Sadly, only two months after its publication and during a resurgence of interest in his greatest film, Kershner died on Nov. 27, 2010 after a long, undisclosed illness. He was 87 years old.