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January 13, 2011

‘The Empire Strikes Back’: Sweet memories of the ‘impish’ Irvin Kershner

Posted in: Movies


Writer and filmmaker Peter Briggs reflects on this week’s star-studded event celebrating the life and art of the late Irvin Kershner.

kershner1 The Empire Strikes Back: Sweet memories of the impish Irvin Kershner

Darth Vader and Irvin Kershner (Associated Press)

“The Empire Strikes Back.”  Four simple words that are guaranteed to stir the heart for fans of the fantastic. That famous title was coined by “Star Wars” producer Gary Kurtz, as a throwaway phrase during a news conference in Germany when describing the aspirations of the “Star Wars” sequel. Happily, it stuck. It’s unfair to encapsulate a wide and varied cinematic career with just one movie, but for any “Star Wars” fan, those four words are instantly synonymous with only one individual. Perhaps not even George Lucas, who created and continues to feed the wellspring of imagination that is the ongoing “Star Wars” saga. Nor Kurtz, who against the odds produced a movie that arguably surpassed its original. Or screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who cracked the bedrock of perhaps the most-quoted space opera ever.

No. We’re talking about its director. We’re talking about the late, great Irvin Kershner.

On Tuesday evening, at the Directors Guild Of America , the Kershner family hosted a “celebration” (a more upbeat spin on the usually downbeat wake) for this beloved individual, who passed away Nov. 27 at age 87 , after a 3 1/2-year battle with lung cancer. That caprice of the gods was hideously wry: 2010 was the 30th anniversary of the release of “Empire.”

Irvin Kershner, right, with actor Peter Weller on the set of "Robocop" (AP Photo/Orion Pictures Corp.)

Irvin Kershner, right, and Peter Weller on the set of “Robocop” (AP Photo/Orion Pictures)

Born in Philadelphia on April 29, 1923, Kersh, as his friends called him, had been seriously ill for an extended time leading up to his death, but his spirit to the last was indefatigable. Even in those final months, he was hoping to travel to England, although the journey would have had to be made through New York and via boat; air travel was medically not an option for him. The man had more than spirit … he was defiantly optimistic. At the time of his death, he was working on a Broadway musical called “Djinn”, as well as a documentary about his friend Ray Bradbury.

flim flam man The Empire Strikes Back: Sweet memories of the impish Irvin KershnerIt’s a peculiar thing. If you ask a casual “Star Wars” fan to list other movies Kersh had made, they’d be hard-pressed to do it. “Robocop 2”? “Never Say Never Again”? Perhaps the elder among them may recall the comedy “S*P*Y*S”, with Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould. From the Roger Corman-produced “Stakeout On Dope Street” in 1958  onward, the former documentarian was a beloved statesman across numerous genres of cinema. He worked with everybody: a Bond-era Sean Connery (“A Fine Madness”), George C. Scott (“The Flim-Flam Man”), Richard Harris (“Return Of A Man Called Horse”), Barbra Streisand (“Up The Sandbox”), and the list goes on and on.

I cannot presume to pen an obituary for Kersh. Others have done that already with greater authority. Despite “The Empire Strikes Back” being my favorite movie ever, I’m agonized to say, I never met Irvin Kershner. And I curse myself for that, when the opportunity was presented several times last year. A family friend did her best, several times, to set up a meeting when I was staying in Los Angeles.  But, per Kersh’s wishes, news about his illness was kept quiet. Had I known the severity of his condition, I’d have dropped everything and ran. What follows are merely my observations from the DGA event, filtered through a life of being — oh yes — a “Star Wars” fan.

The Kershner celebration was a lovely affair, feeling more like a family occasion than many of these functions generally do. On this occasion, the attendees were treated to 46 very special pictures on the DGA lobby walls, from four of Kersh’s personal photographic series. All were large, individually framed photographs, the majority black-and-white, with a smattering of them in color. When I say I had no idea Kershner was such an extraordinarily gifted stills man (tutored at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena), I’m not flattering him with false praise.

fine madness The Empire Strikes Back: Sweet memories of the impish Irvin KershnerThe photographs shown that night were flabbergasting in their composition, detail and lighting. Many of the photographs from the Erich Lachmann collection were of antique musical instruments. I was told Kersh, while he was a student, snuck the instruments out of USC to take pictures of them.  There were posed rustic scenes from Greece from 1951, taken with a Rolleiflex while making documentaries of Peloponnisos and Thessaloniki for the U.S. government, and developed in various bathrooms as he traveled. There were also New York studies from his “A Positive View Of Negative Space” collection, taken with an Olympus 35-millimeter between 2000 and 2003, and “Kitchen Illusions,” the last major series he took, using colorful fabrics and plates he’d collected from around the world. I asked one of the many women of all ages in attendance (every one of whom, it must be said, seemed to have been enamored of Kersh) to take a snap of me with one particularly striking black-and-white study of a mandolin, which resembled a fine-art illustration from centuries past. (In a quote from the service booklet, Kersh himself observed, “I was inspired to not only show them, but to create an environment surrounding them that enhanced their beauty and craftsmanship.”)

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Peter Mayhew, Carrie Fisher, Irvin Kershner and Billy Dee Williams on the set of “The Empire Strikes Back” (Los Angeles Times archives)

At just before 5 p.m., the DGA atrium had filled with a remarkable array of individuals. I was there with Kurtz (with whom I’m collaborating on a movie), accompanied by his daughters. The perennially intoxicating Barbara Carrera (memorable as Fatima Blush in Kersh’s sly Bond sidestep, “Never Say Never Again”) fulfilled my decades-old crush by giving me a kiss and, misty-eyed, revealed that more than any other director, Kersh had encouraged her to open up her acting range and allowed her to fly. Lucas and Kasdan were quietly in attendance. John Lithgow towered elegantly over everybody, and I got a chance to speak to Richard Benjamin and an astonishingly robust George Segal about their friend Kersh.

up the sandbox The Empire Strikes Back: Sweet memories of the impish Irvin KershnerI found myself standing next to Mark Hamill and told him that as a teen I crashed the 1982 set of “Revenge Of The Jedi” (as it was called at that point in production) at Elstree Studios and stood right next to him in the Emperor’s throne room. I also explained that I wasn’t there for long — the beady eye of assistant director David Tomblin fell on me, and I beat a hasty retreat. Hamill’s eyes twinkled, and he shot back: “You should have told me on the set, I would’ve taken you under my wing and shown you the works.”

It was delightful to chat with Billy Dee Williams for a good 20 minutes and watch him proudly display iPhone photographs of his grandson (who calls him “Grampa Calrissian”). When pressed for anecdotes of Kershner, his abiding memory was that Kersh was “impish and mischievous.” Then he added that, really, Kersh was Yoda. That seemed to be a recurring theme for the evening. Just 10 minutes before I’d spoken to Williams, Sid Ganis, former Paramount president and Lucasfilm executive, had made that same observation to me. (“Kersh really was a Star Wars character”.) And later, the ever-effervescent Frank Oz, during one of the eulogies at the podium, reflected that when filming Yoda’s introductory Dagobah scene, with Kershner was demonstrating exactly how Yoda should wallop poor R2-D2 with his walking stick, it dawned on Oz that, well, all he had to really do was play Kersh himself.

loving The Empire Strikes Back: Sweet memories of the impish Irvin KershnerAs we filed into the auditorium, other luminaries attempted a low-key entrance, among them Streisand behind sunglasses. The music icon’s distinctive and joyous laugh echoed from the rear of the auditorium, adding to the fond reminiscences from the stage. Kersh’s son, David, bookended the recollections, which were laced with Oscar-winning editor Thom Noble’s specially assembled montage of scenes from 13 feature films.

The friends and family who spoke included writer-producer Andrew Fenady (with whom Kershner collaborated on the early TV show “The Rebel”); his nephew Jeremiah Schwartz;  Martha Nell Smith, a University of Maryland  professor and founder of the Maryland Institute of Technology in the Humanities; TV movie producer Len Steckler; and James Ragan. Fenady recalled the grit of working on early documentaries with Kershner, highlighting his transition to drama. Schwartz recalled that when he was a young man and down on his luck, Kersh had sent him a check with the entreaty to “go out and have some fun” — although the check was signed by Connery, which caused a minor stir when Schwartz went to cash it at the bank. Smith recalled that Kersh was a soul who followed Henry James’ classic advice  to “Be Kind … Be Kind … Be Kind,” while Ragan concluded the proceedings by reading from the poem “A Good Sky.”

Fittingly, the last word was had by Irvin Kershner himself. A small clip of the director ran on the theater screen. “The slower you move,” he observed, “the more you see, outside and inside.” An insight worthy of Yoda himself.

kershener lucas kurtz empire strike back The Empire Strikes Back: Sweet memories of the impish Irvin Kershner

Irvin Kershner, George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan on the set of “The Empire Strikes Back” (Lucasfilm)

As people afterward swapped stories of Kersh and shared wines sent by Francis Ford Coppola, a television to one side attracted a knot of viewers. On the screen was a series of reminiscences from the director himself, footage of him recalling his life and career. The conversation in the room was warm, not maudlin. One of my favorite anecdotes of the night was recounted to me from a chocolatier, who, during the last months of Kersh’s life, worked with the filmmaker to perfect the recipe for dark-chocolate-dipped black cherries. Using only the purest ingredients, including Bolivian honey, they finally nailed it. As Kersh tasted their masterpiece, the chocolatier said, he smiled at the young chef with satisfaction: “Now that makes life worth living.” Their complicated confection was served at the celebration, another reason the night ended with a sweet smile instead of a tear.

— Peter Briggs


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