Irvin Kershner, filmmaker, photographer and mentor to many younger Hollywood filmmakers, died at his home in Los Angeles on November 27, 2010, after a three-and-a-half-year battle with lung cancer. He was 87. Best known for directing The Empire Strikes Back, the 1980 landmark sequel to George Lucas’s original Star Wars film, Kershner had a career in film and television that spanned 40 years.
Kershner’s background was a mixture of music and art. The study of music (violin, viola and composition) was the most important activity of his early years. He studied at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia and went on to attend the Temple University-Tyler School of Fine Arts. Later, he went to New York and Provincetown to study with the famous painter Hans Hofmann. He then moved to Los Angeles, where he studied photography at the Art Center College of Design. Kershner’s accomplishments as painter, photographer and musician are evident in his work as a director.
He began his film career at the USC School of Cinema, where he taught photography and took cinema courses under Slavko Vorkapich, the great montage artist and, at the time, dean of the School of Cinema. Kershner next accepted a job as still photographer on a State Department film project in Iran under the Four Point Program, which ultimately led to an assignment as a director and cinematographer of documentaries in Iran, Greece and Turkey with the United States Information Service.
Upon his return to the U.S., Kershner and the late Paul Coates, along with Andrew Fenady, developed the Primetime Emmy-winning documentary television series Confidential File. Kershner worked as writer, director, cinematographer and editor. He later developed and directed the television series The Rebel, as well as the pilots for Peyton Place, Cain’s One Hundred and Philip Marlowe.
Roger Corman provided some of the financing for his first feature, Stakeout on Dope Street, which was written and produced by Kershner with his Confidential File partner Andrew Fenady.
In the ’60s and ’70s, he made films starring such stars as Robert Shaw (The Luck of Ginger Coffey), Sean Connery (A Fine Madness), George C. Scott (The Flim-Flam Man) Eva Marie Saint (Loving) Barbra Streisand (Up the Sandbox) Richard Harris (Return of a Man Called Horse) and Faye Dunaway (Eyes of Laura Mars). He also directed Connery in the film that returned the actor to the James Bond role for a curtain call, Never Say Never Again.
In 1969, Kershner teamed up with novelist John Irving to create a screen adaptation of Irving’s novel Setting Free the Bears. In his 1999 memoir, My Movie Business, Irving noted: “Kershner was my hero ... He was a wild man with a nonstop imagination and boundless energy. I just tried to keep up with him, which wasn’t easy. Kershner never sat down. He paced, reciting the entire story, from the opening shot to the end credits, without once referring to the script. Kershner was the real screenwriter. I was just taking dictation. ‘You changed something! Stop!’ I would shout. ‘Of course I changed something!’ He would shout back. ‘I’m always changing something. It’s my job to change something!’”
For the 1976 made-for-television movie Raid on Entebbe, Kershner earned a Primetime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Directing in a Special Program — Drama or Comedy.
In June 2010, Kershner received a lifetime achievement award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films. At the time, Empire Strikes Back executive producer George Lucas wrote, “[Kershner’s] films have a maturity and a depth of character, and that’s just what my middle chapter needed. The Star Wars story has had to evolve in order to stay fresh, and it took a filmmaker like you to make that important step in galaxy-building.”
Lucas went on to say, “Your career has been compelling and eclectic, and I can’t think of anyone better suited for this honor.”
Kershner was a longtime friend of Francis Ford Coppola, who observed, upon learning of Kershner’s passing, “We all enjoyed knowing Kersh, learning from him — and admired his creative spirit and indomitable will. It was always exciting to talk with him about all aspects of cinema and life. He will most certainly be missed.”
Barbra Streisand, a friend of nearly 40 years, remarked, “He had the most incredible spirit, an exuberance for life. 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.”
Empire Strikes Back star Billy Dee Williams noted, “He was an extraordinary mountain of a man with whom I’m proud to have shared the world of art. I bet he’s smiling at us right now with that wonderful impish smile.”
In recent years, Kershner continued to produce and write, while teaching screenwriting at USC and lecturing in many countries. He also created a collection of fine art photographs for exhibition in New York, San Francisco and Mexico. Some of his work now exists as a permanent photography exhibition at the newly opened Los Angeles County General Hospital.
Dr. James Ragan, friend, poet, and former director of the USC Professional Writing Program, noted, “Kersh was a truly gifted, devoted, and generous mentor to all who had the privilege of working with him. His film co-workers, students and friends alike knew him as a gentleman, a student of film and human history. He loved teaching, whether on a set or in a classroom. He had a sense of humor to match his unwavering commitment to high standards. His intellectual curiosity was a constant, as was his devotion to the art of filmmaking. He was one of the most respected film directors of his generation — or any — a continent in an ocean of islands. He will be truly missed.”
Kershner’s son, David, noted, “My father never really retired. He had a powerful drive to create — whether it be through film, photography, or writing. At the time of his death, he was co-writing a Broadway musical entitled Djinn and working on a documentary about his friend Ray Bradbury. The musical is a fable about tolerance and a deep bond of friendship between a Jewish immigrant and an Arab sheik, set in a Palestinian village prior to the birth of Israel.”
When learning the news of Kershner’s passing, Ray Bradbury wrote, “Kersh was an amazing man, a good friend and I loved him with all my heart.”
Matthew Robbins, writer, director and former assistant to Kershner on the film Loving, wrote the attached tribute to his friend that captures the spirit of the man.
Kershner’s complete filmography, samples of his photography and more are available at www.irvinkershner.net.
At Kershner’s request, there will be no funeral. Instead of flowers, donations may be made in his memory to: The Settlement Music School, P.O. Box 63966, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, or the San Juan Preservation Trust, P.O. Box 327, Lopez, WA 98261.
Survivors include two sons.