Irvin Kershner, director of Empire Strikes Back, dead at 87

Irvin Kershner, the journeyman filmmaker who was hand-picked by George Lucas to direct the first Star Wars sequel, has passed away following a long illness.

For a man whose career dated back to the mid-1950s, it must've been odd for Kershner to be known for just one film. But when that film is Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back, it's probably not so bad. With films like the Sean Connery romantic comedy A Fine Madness (1966) and Richard Harris' The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976) under his belt, the one-time still photographer signed on to Empire with a very real sense of responsibility. As he told Vanity Fair just last month:

"I wanted very much for the film to succeed because I knew that George was spending his own money on it. I think the critics felt that they were going to see an extension of Star Wars. In other words, they wanted another Star Wars. I decided that the potential was much greater than a rerun of Star Wars. When I finally accepted the assignment, I knew that it was going to be a dark film, with more depth to the characters than in the first film. It took a few years for the critics to catch up with the film and to see it as a fairy tale rather than a comic book."

And dark it was. In a very real way, The Empire Strikes Back was the film that introduced an entire generation of children to the concept of tragedy. The same kids for whom Star Wars was an indoctrination to the power of cinema and the wonder of science fiction would learn that, sometimes, stories don't end well for the hero. That the bad guy, if he's got his mojo working, can steal the day—and the hero's hand in the process. That, occasionally, the only thing you can do is stare off into the stars and hope that tomorrow will be better than today.

Empire didn't really open the doors for Kershner's career in the way it should have, given that it made $200 million in its initial 1980 release. He would work with Connery again on the Bond-ish outing Never Say Never Again and direct the poorly received RoboCop II. His last credit was an episode of SeaQuest 2032 in 1993.

But given that Kershner played a crucial role in delivering the best installment of the most beloved saga of all time, his legacy will endure.