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November 29, 2010 at 09:00 PM EST

Image Credit: © & TM Lucasfilm, LtdGeorge Lucas will always be known as the genius behind Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Darth Vader. But it was Irvin Kershner, a professorial and genteel man of the old school, who directed the film most Star Wars aficionados consider the greatest chapter in the saga, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. It was to Kershner’s credit that he never jockeyed for the limelight or clawed for the credit. He was a quiet craftsman who believed in letting the images he put on screen speak for him. The news that Kershner passed away earlier today leaves a giant black hole in a galaxy far far away and in the hearts of fans in this one.

Kershner was a graduate of USC film school and years later he taught a young, like-minded student named George Lucas. But before that fateful classroom encounter, Kershner would earn his stripes producing documentaries for the U.S. Information Service in the Middle East in the early ’50s. Like so many filmmakers of the late ’50s and ’60s, one of his first Hollywood writing/directing assignments came from indie legend Roger Corman, in 1958’s noirish Stakeout on Dope Street. Afterwards, he bounced around as a TV director on such shows as The Rebel, Ben Casey, and Naked City. In 1966, he directed a clean-cut Sean Connery as a Casanova poet in A Fine Madness. It wasn’t one of Kershner’s or Connery’s better-known films, but the collaboration paved the way for the two to reunite on 1983’s unsanctioned Bond flick, Never Say Never Again.

While Kershner will always be remembered for helming the darkest and most adult entry in the Star Wars saga in which the world was introduced to far-out places like the ice planet Hoth and a wizened and wrinkled sage named Yoda (not a bad way to remembered, by the way), there are several other films on his resumé that remain unsung and show off his ease in a variety of genres. In 1970’s Loving, he directed George Segal as a man grappling with the early onset of a mid-life crisis, juggling an extramarital affair. In 1977, he directed the ambitious TV movie Raid on Entebbe about a daring Israeli hostage rescue, which received nine Emmy nominations. And in 1978’s disco-era thriller Eyes of Laura Mars, he guided Faye Dunaway (and a young Tommy Lee Jones) as a photographer who shares visions with a serial killer. In the ’90s, Kershner returned to science fiction with 1990’s sequel RoboCop 2 and the TV series SeaQuest 2032.

Later in life, Kershner liked to tell the story of how he got the Empire Strikes Back gig. When Lucas offered the job to the then-57-year-old Kershner over lunch, he asked, “Of all the younger guys around, all the hot shots, why me?” Lucas replied, “Well, because you know everything a Hollywood director is supposed to know, but you’re not Hollywood.” Kershner turned down the offer at first. But his agent begged him to reconsider. He did. And for that, a generation of moviegoers will always be thankful. May the force be with you, sir.

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Irving Kershner, director of ‘Empire Strikes Back,’ dies

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