2010 has been quite a year to say the least. In February, space artist Robert T. McCall passed away. we lost Dan OBannon, Today, Leslie Nielsen, and over the weekend we lost a legend & good friend Irvin Kershner. Kersh, as he liked to be called, is most known for his directing of “The Empire Strikes Back”. He had been fighting a long battle with lung cancer and, sadly, on Saturday, November the 27th his fight came to an end, and Kershner passed away at his home in Coldwater Canyon, CA.
The Empire has always been my favorite of the Star Wars films, as well as being one of my all time favorite movies. It is a masterpiece on all levels and so towers over the rest of the films in terms of character development and edge of your seat drama and surprises. I have been a huge fan of Kersh’s work ever since. In 1977, I first heard his name in a 1976/77 film called “the Eyes of Laura Mars” Kersh directed this eerie little tale and it was written by a virtual unknown at the time, Mr. John Carpenter. I started working in Hollywood in 1985 with a lot of inspiration from; Spielberg, Kershner, George Miller and George Lucas, and in 1992 I was hired as an artist on a new Steven Spielberg television series called “SeaQuest DSV”. WOW I was so excited to finally be on a Spielberg production!!!!! After a few weeks of working on the show, we got word that Kershner was going to direct!!! DOUBLE DOG WOW!!! This was a dream come true – working with my two favorites on one show, Spielberg and Kershner!!! It was not too long after the news was heard that he came over to our office to meet everyone!!! Knowing what he looked like from pictures, we knew him immediately when he came in the door. He opened his mouth and said loudly “Hi everyone” and in all honesty I was thrown back that this towering man had a lot of Frank OZ and Yoda mixed into his voice. For a minute I thought he was goofing around but right away I realized that that was his real voice. How cool, and even more cool was how very gracious and kind he was to everyone. There was no level of superiority between himself and us in the art department. To Irvin, we were all a team and that was how it was. He was a Hollywood master without a Hollywood aura. Right away he jumped into all the drawings with great enthusiasm, and lots and lots of feedback on things. One day he was in talking to us all and the topic of the Empire Strikes Back came up, and after answering a million questions, he said that he would dig out his 35mm copy of Empire and we could all watch it at lunch one day!!! A few days later he had the film and we all headed down to the big Amblin screening room and the movie started. There was about 25 of us in there with Kersh in the middle. As the movie started, the color of the print drifted from full color to a rolling shade of pale blue. Kersh cussed up some good sailor terms and hollered out that the film can was stored on the sunny side of the garage!!! The film had some heat damage that disappeared after about 5 minutes so once clear on the screen he talked over the movie at points and filled in lots of behind the scenes details. You could hear in his tone that there were lots of grand memories filling his mind as he spoke and by the end you could tell that this film was very special to him. As SeaQuest went on, we became friends and Kersh would bring things in to show me from some of his other films. One of the fun things I enjoyed was to watch him direct. What an animated man…I would think that from an actor’s point of view, he would be a favorite to work with. He would become the character and inspire the dialog in a collaboration with the actors as they were developing the personalities of who they were playing. Once the pilot was finished, it was editing time and Kersh was not allowed to be a part of it due to studio intervention. I remember talking to him on the phone and he was so upset that he could not finish what he had begun. The pilot aired shortly after and all that he had done on stage was not evident in the final show!!! Very sad to have wasted his talent by not letting him see the production through.
Although SeaQuest was over and Kersh was gone, we continued to chat and he called me one day and he said “I have two words for you”. Really! I said, What could they be. He said “Forbidden Planet, do you want to work on this one with me”??? WOW!!! I could not wait. So the next step was to meet up at Stan Winston’s studio and after the meeting we all started to work out the details of a little rough draft of the remake. Stan and his gang was awesome! I was a fan of everyone there and to be in the same room with Kersh, Stan, Crash McCreary, Shane Mahan, and John Rosengandt was just too much to take. The film went no where as time went on and thank goodness because the script was awful and would have been a travesty no matter who was working on it!! Once this one was all fizzled out, that was about the end of Kersh’s directing career. We stayed in touch and either talked on the phone or had visits whenever we could. Every once in a while he would have a request or two that were always fun to comply with. Once he called and said, “Hey, your an old model maker. Would you fix my Kane robot from Robocop II.” Phil Tippet had given Kersh the stop motion puppet from the film and he was so worn out and so very heavy that just a few weeks time would cause the puppet to slump over. A quick rod attached to the base and some thin wire fixed the problem and Kane was standing again! We talked a few months ago about the 30th anniversary of Empire and with great sadness the last time we ever spoke. Kersh was a a man I had a lot of respect for…such a kind and caring man, with some amazing talents in so many genres of art, photography and movie making rolled in, too. I will miss you my friend and thanks for all the inspirations and fun memories. Below and after the pictures is a bio and a link about Kersh, lots of fascinating things to read about here.
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.