Irvin Kershner: Director best known for his work on the ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Robocop’ series of films

Irvin Kershner (known as "Kersh" to his friends) directed what many consider the best of the Star Wars films, The Empire Strikes Back (1980). As well as containing many of the cycle's most iconic moments, including the revelation of Luke Skywalker's parentage, it is arguably the most entertaining and accessible of the films for those who are not ardent fans of the enormously popular franchise. Keshner said that his aim was to instil greater character development into the work.

Producer George Lucas had directed the original Star Wars, and at first Kershner declined his request that he direct the second film, expressing surprise that he should be chosen in preference to the many bright new talents around. "Because," replied Lucas, "you know everything a Hollywood director is supposed to know, but you're not Hollywood." Kershner had already directed several noteworthy, if not particularly commercial, films, including A Fine Madness (1966) and Loving (1970), but with Empire he moved into another bracket, and he followed it with two more vehicles in already established franchises, the James Bond movie, Never Say Never Again, Sean Connery's last appearance as Bond, and the sequel to the action hit, Robocop.

He was born in 1923 in a working-class section of South Philadelphia, but though his parents were poor they encouraged him to study the arts, and he studied violin and viola at the Settlement Music School. At 10 he performed a solo for Albert Einstein, one of the board members. "I was sweating, shaking," he recalled. "Afterwards he told me how good I was, which wasn't true."

After Philadelphia High School he served in the war as a flight engineer on bombers, following which he settled in New York, where he studied painting with the avant-garde artist Hans Hoffmann. Moving to California, he studied photography at the Arts Center College of Design, then enrolled at USC, where he was taught film by the montage expert Slavko Vorkapich. When he joined the faculty as a teacher, one of his students was George Lucas.

In the early Fifties he was hired as a photographer for the US Information Services, and graduated to documentaries in Iran, Greece and Turkey. He then developed, with friends Andrew Fenady and the late Paul Coates, a TV documentary series, Confidential File, which recreated the events behind news headlines. In 1958 he and Fenady made their first feature film, Stakeout on Dope Street, after they were offered help by Roger Corman. "I had made a bit of money and was looking for some way to invest it," recalled Corman.

Stakeout on Dope Street, the story of three teenagers who find some packs of uncut heroin and try to peddle it, was a tightly edited, gritty drama, given a documentary quality by the photography of Haskell Wexler (using the pseudonym Mark Jeffrey, the names of his two sons), and the direction of Kershner. He next made, with Fenady producing, The Young Captives (1959), a thriller about a young couple terrorised by a psychopathic hitch-hiker, which like the earlier film had fine performances from its little-known leads, and neatly modulated dramatic intensity. The Hoodlum Priest (1961) also had excellent performances from its leading players Don Murray, and (in his first film) Keir Dullea, in a compelling drama based on a real priest who devoted his life to helping would-be criminals.

A Face in the Rain (1963), made in Italy, was a wartime spy story. The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1964) was a triumph for its star, Robert Shaw, in a bleak tale of middle-age crisis, effectively shot in a chilly Montreal. Kershner directed Sean Connery for the first time in A Fine Madness (1966), a sometimes hilarious tale of a nonconformist poet, though it also had dark undertones that presaged some of Kershner's later work, and he showed that George C Scott could handle comedy, as a con-man in The Flim Flam Man (1967).

Loving (1970) was a bittersweet tale of a husband juggling wife and mistress, a potent mixture of hilarity and pain superbly acted by George Segal and Eva Marie Saint. It brought Kershner some of his finest reviews, but was less successful at the box-office. Up the Sandbox (1972) was a thin comedy, but it began a lifetime friendship between Kershner and Barbra Streisand, who spoke this week of his "exuberance for life and amazingly feverish curiosity".

The TV movie Raid on Entebbe (1976) brought Kershner an Emmy nomination, while The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), starring Faye Dunaway as a fashion model who sees murders before they occur, was a glossy thriller that Kershner did not enjoy making.

He was then offered The Empire Strikes Back by Lucas, who said, "I needed someone I could trust, someone I really admired and whose work had maturity and humour. I didn't want it to be just another sequel... I was trying to build something and I knew Kersh was the guy to help me do it."

Kershner said of his film, "I think it went beyond Star Wars. You had some humour, you got to know the characters a little better." He indulged his love of the close-up, saying, "There is nothing more interesting than the landscape of the human face." Empire has several iconic features – it establishes that Luke Skywalker's father is Darth Vader, it introduces The Yoda and ignites the romance between Han Solo and Princess Leia. Kershner said his only conflict with Lucas was over the moment when Princess Leia declares to Solo, "I love you". Lucas's script had Solo replying, "I love you, too," which Kershner thought out of character. Harrison Ford improvised the response, "I know", and it became one of the best remembered moments. The Yoda is often considered to be fashioned in the likeness of Kershner, but its designer, Stuart Freeborn, has said that it is based on himself. The Empire Strikes Back, though the second film to be made, was Episode Five of the saga. Critic Roger Ebert wrote, "It is because of the emotions stirred in Empire that the entire series takes on a mythic quality that resonates back to the first [movie] and ahead to the third. This is the heart."

Kershner directed only two more films, Never Say Never Again (1983), with Connery returning as Bond for the last time, and Robocop 2 (1990), an excessively violent sequel to the science-fiction hit, but he confessed that he loved his earlier movies best. He continued to indulge his passion for photography. Occasionally he enjoyed appearing in friends' movies – he was Zebedee in Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). He semi-retired in 1993, after completing an episode of the TV series Sea Quest DSV, but he continued to work on new projects; at the time of his death he was preparing a documentary on his friend, Ray Bradbury, and writing a musical, Djinn, about the friendship between a Jewish immigrant and an Arab sheik in Palestine before it became Israel.

Irvin Kershner, film director and actor: born Philadelphia 29 April 1923; two sons; died Los Angeles 27 November 2010.

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