Irvin Kershner (Apr. 1923 – Nov. 2010)
Art and photography were the dual launch pads for director Irvin Kershner’s career. He studied both at length as well as tackling documentaries in the 1950’s, before making his feature film debut with “Stakeout on Dope Street” (1958) – a gritty crime drama produced by Roger Corman. It led to various jobs on television series and in other independent features. Kershner’s film work was distinguished by his ability to show realistic and intimate human drama in his stories, and for finding unusual aspects on nearly every genre – from comedies like “A Fine Madness” (1966) and romantic dramas such as “Loving” (1970), to horror flicks like “The Eyes of Laura Mars” (1978) and historical adventures in the ilk of as “The Return of a Man Called Horse” (1976). His biggest box office hit was the “Star Wars” sequel “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), which benefited hugely from his mature direction. Kershner also maintained alternate careers as a producer, educator and some-time actor, but it was his work creating the darkest and most critically acclaimed of the “Star Wars” trilogy that would be his greatest and longest living legacy.
Born in 1923, Kershner’s education was rich in the arts. He studied music at a young age before joining the Air Force as a flight engineer on B-24 bombers during World War II. When he returned to civilian life, he studied art and design at the Tyler School of Fine Arts, part of Temple University in Philadelphia, USA. He also studied art under Hans Hoffman, an artist in New York City. In 1948 at age 25 he moved to Los Angeles to study photography and design at the Art Center College of Design and UCLA while paying the bills working as a commercial artist. Kershner later studied film at USC’s School of Cinema, where he also taught photography. While there, he took on a job as a still photographer with a State Department Film Crew in Iran, which led to him directing documentaries on the Middle East and Europe for the US Information Service in 1950. From 1953 to 1955, he developed, directed and acted as cameraman on a documentary series for TV called “Confidential File,” which recreated events in the news. Irvin Kershner’s first feature film was a low-budget crime drama called “Stakeout on Dope Street” featuring a script by veteran writer Andrew J. Fenady and a young cast culled from Roger Corman’s talent pool. Praised for its realistic direction, Kershner was able to direct two more well-received urban crime dramas on the back of this one – “The Young Captives” (1959) and “Hoodlum Priest” (1961), with Don Murray as Father Charles Clark, a preacher to inner city street gangs. Murray was nominated for two awards at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival.
Kershner moved to TV series in the early sixties before directing “Face in the Rain” (1963) starring Rory Calhoun and “The Luck of Ginger Coffey” (1964) with Robert Shaw, the direction of which was widely praised by the arthouse press. Kershner then moved on to “A Fine Madness” (1966) – a wry comedy starring Sean Connery while he was at the height of his popularity as James Bond. Connery plays a poet who visits a string of unconventional psychiatrists seeking a cure for his mental block. “Madness” developed a cult following and, along with its successor “The Flim-Flam Man” (1967) starring George C Scott, cemented Kershner’s genre as a director. The 1970 flm “Loving” starring George Segal earned Kershner his best reviews and ticket sales to date and ushered Kershner into the Hollywood fold. Unfortunately his first big budget movie “Up the Sandbox” (1972) was poorly received by critics and box office alike, as was the 1974 film “S*P*Y*S”, a reunion of “M*A*S*H” (1970) stars Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould in a dark comedy about espionage. While this was happening, Kershner did the development work for the gritty Western drama “A Man Called Horse” (1970), but was removed from the project before completion and not credited for his contributions to the screenplay. He did however direct the 1976 sequel, “Return of a Man Called Horse,” which again starred Richard Harris in the title role. The gruesome sequel re-enacted the purification ritual of the original “Horse” where Harris hangs from the ceiling of a sweat lodge by hookspiercing his chest.
Kershner experienced further success with “Raid on Entebbe” (1977) starring Charles Bronson, James Woods and Peter Finch which netted a Golden Globe and an Emmy for its technical aspects. A further nine nominations were given to its cast and production team, including one for Irvin Kershner himself. He followed this in 1978 with “The Eyes of Laura Mars” starring Faye Dunaway, which was a modest box office hit. George Lucas saw the film and contacted Kershner about directing the follow-up to his classic “Star Wars” (1977). Kershner felt “Star Wars” was too big a hit for him to want to take on a sequel, but bowed to the pressure fro his former student Lucas and took on “The Empire Strikes Back.” The rest, as they say, is history – “Empire” became the highest grossing film of 1980 and one of the top 50 money earners of all time. It was on the set of “Empire” that Irvin Kershner received the monica “Kersh”, which was to accompany him through the remainder of his career.
Kersh re-united with Sean Connery for the 1983 James Bond film “Never Say Never Again” and then went on to another sequel – “RoboCop 2” (1990). He later returned to television, directing the pilot episode of the NBC action-adventure series “seaQuest DSV” – productino of which then ran from 1993 to 96 and still airs today. That pretty much wound up the directorial career of Irvin Kershner, although he always found time to represent “Empire” whenever “Star Wars” retrospectives occurred, including watching as Lucasfilm added CGI effects to his classic production to create “The Empire Strikes Back: Special Edition” (1997). It was a testament to Kershner’s quality that “Empire” was the least retouched of the original trilogy. In the late 90’s Kersh kept himself active as an executive producer on several independent films. He also worked on various photography projects, and lectured at various colleges and festivals including his beloved USC, where he served on the faculty for the Master of Professional Writing program.