Obituary: IRVIN KERSHNER

© 1990 MGM Studios

The trouble with being a film director is that they very often get little in the way of acknowledgement for the work they do. Yes, there are some superstar directors, of the stratospheric status of  James Cameron, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg et al, and some who are better known in some circles than others (for instance the likes of David Lynch and George A. Romero), but most are just names that appear in the credits at either end of the film.

I suspect that Irvin Kershner was just one of that set of directors categorised as “I’ve seen their films but I don’t know who the actual director is”. I can guess that most of my readers will have seen at least one of his films, either Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back, Robocop 2 or Never Say Never Again (the 1983 ‘unofficial’ Bond film, starring Sean Connery). In total he was the director of 15 films, acted in two (Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and Steven Seagal’s On Deadly Ground) and also directed episodes of the TV series SeaQuest DSV.

Kershner originally came from a musical background (being able to play the violin and viola) and studied music at Temple University – Tyler School of Fine Arts, based in Philadelphia. He then went on to study painting in New York and Provincetown with Hans Hofman, and then to Los Angeles to study photography. He went on to teach at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, and eventually ended up in the United States Information Service making documentaries on various countries.

After working in television, Kershner found himself in the world of Hollywood, where he directed films like The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1964), A Fine Madness (1966), The Flim-Flam Man (1967), S*P*Y*S (1974), The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976), the TV movie Raid on Entebbe (1977) which was nominated for nine Emmys, and The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978).

His next next film as director was 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, which inevitably, given the success of the first film in the Star Wars franchise, catapulted his name into the popular consciousness. Apparently Lucas told Kershner he chose him because he knew “everything a Hollywood director is supposed to know, but [he wasn’t] Hollywood.” Which is high praise indeed, acknowledging his craft rather than his obeisance to the Tinseltown Film Factory’s way of doing things. (Although not a great fan of Star Wars myself, I do remember reading of the innovations that Phil Tippett brought to Empire, specifically techniques to make stop-motion animation more realistic, plus of all the SW films I enjoyed this one the most.) Following on from there, Kershner brought cinema-goers Never Say Never Again (1983) and then his last film, Robocop 2, in 1990.

He was a faculty member of the Master of Professional Writing programme at the University of Southern California and was working on photography at the time of his death.

Irvin Kershner was born April 29th, 1923 in Philadelphia. He died, aged 87, on November 27th, 2010, after a three and a half year battle with lung cancer in Los Angeles.

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