‘Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back’ director Irvin Kershner has died in Los Angeles at age 87, the Agence France-Presse reports. Goddaughter Adriana Santini said Kershner had faced an illness for some time.
In addition to directing what many regard as the pinnacle of the ‘Star Wars’ saga, Kershner helmed ‘Never Say Never Again’ and ‘Robocop 2.’
The onetime George Lucas collaborator taught courses in film and photography at the University of Southern California. In an interview later in his life, Kershner spoke of teaching Lucas in the 1960s. “Even then, I could see that he was a very special student,” Kershner said. “Not that he had a great eye, but he had vision.”
Kershner was born in Philadelphia in 1923; he was a musician and photographer before delving into documentary and eventually feature filmmaking.
Reflecting on the 30-year legacy of ‘Empire Strikes Back’ in October, Kershner told Vanity Fair: “I think the critics felt that they were going to see an extension of ‘Star Wars.’ In other words, they wanted another ‘Star Wars.’ I decided that the potential was much greater than a rerun of ‘Star Wars.’ 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. 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 also famously turned down ‘Return of the Jedi,’ telling VF, “After working for two years and nine months doing ‘Empire,’ and having it take so much out of my life and having given me so much, I felt that it was a complete experience and it was time to move on.”
One specific legacy of Kershner’s, embedded within ‘Empire Strikes Back,’ is Han Solo’s legendary “I know” response to Princess Leia’s “I love you.” The script called for Harrison Ford to reply with a simple “I love you, too,” but Kershner’s gut said otherwise.
“I shot the line and it just didn’t seem right for the character of Han Solo. We were into the lunch break and I said to Harrison try it again and just do whatever comes to mind. That is when Harrison said the line, ‘I know.’ After the take, I said to my assistant director, David Tomblin, ‘It’s a wrap,’” Kershner told Vanity Fair. “George [Lucas] saw the first cut and said, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute. That’s not the line in the script.’ I said, ‘I love you, too was not Han Solo.’ Han Solo was a rebel. George felt that the audience would laugh. And I said, ‘That’s wonderful, he is probably going to his death for all they know.’”
Despite Lucas’ initial dismay at Kershner’s interpretation, audience tests proved the line a hit, and Kershner ultimately admits, “George was the best producer I ever worked with.”
See a clip of Kershner speaking about George Lucas: