LOS ANGELES – When George Lucas needed someone to direct the sequel to "Star Wars," he turned to veteran filmmaker Irvin Kershner.
Under Kershner's direction, Luke Skywalker learned that Darth Vader was his father and Han Solo delivered one of his most memorable lines, responding to Princess Leia's "I love you" with "I know."
Lucas and others in Hollywood on Monday mourned the death of "The Empire Strikes Back" director. Kershner died Saturday at his Los Angeles home after a 3 1/2-year battle with lung cancer. He was 87.
Kershner had already made several well-received movies when Lucas tapped him to direct "Empire," the second "Star Wars" film to be released but the fifth in the overall "Star Wars" chronology.
Lucas, the "Star Wars" creator, said he didn't want to direct the sequel himself.
"I needed someone I could trust, someone I really admired and whose work had maturity and humor. That was Kersh all over," Lucas said in a statement. "I didn't want 'Empire' to turn into just another sequel, another episode in a series of space adventures. I was trying to build something."
Lucas said he considered Kershner a mentor and called him "a great director and one of the most genuine people I've had the pleasure of knowing."
Released in 1980, "Empire" was a darker story than the original. It initially got mixed reviews but has gone on to become one of the most critically praised.
Kershner told Vanity Fair in October that he tried to give the sequel more depth than the 1977 original.
"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," he said. "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."
Kershner said he had only one sharp disagreement with Lucas. The script originally called for the heroine, Princess Leia, to tell space pilot Han Solo "I love you" and for him to reply "I love you, too."
"I shot the line and it just didn't seem right for the character of Han Solo," Kershner said.
Instead, actor Harrison Ford improvised the reply: "I know."
Lucas wanted the original line but after test previews agreed to leave in Ford's reply.
The Philadelphia-born Kershner studied music, painting and photography before turning to film. He attended the University of Southern California film school and in the 1950s made U.S. government documentaries in Greece, Iran and Turkey.
He was a director and cameraman for a television documentary series called "Confidential File" in Los Angeles before getting his first movie break in 1958 when Roger Corman helped finance his first feature, "Stakeout on Dope Street," which Kershner wrote and produced with colleague Andrew Fenady, said longtime friend and Hollywood publicist Dick Guttman.
Kershner went on to direct a number of noted features in the 1960s and 1970s, including "A Fine Madness" with Sean Connery, Joanne Woodward and Jean Seberg; "The Flim-Flam Man" with George C. Scott; "Loving" with George Segal and Eva Marie Saint; and "The Eyes of Laura Mars" with Faye Dunaway.
The 1976 television movie "Raid on Entebbe" earned him an Emmy nomination for direction.
Along with "Empire," his big-budget work included the 1983 James Bond film "Never Say Never Again" with Connery and "Robocop 2" in 1990.
Kershner also was an occasional actor. He played the priest Zebedee in Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ."
In recent years, Kershner taught screenwriting at the University of Southern California while continuing to produce, write and create still photographs, Guttman said.
Francis Ford Coppola said in a statement, "We all enjoyed knowing Kersh, learning from him and admired his creative spirit and indomitable will."
Barbra Streisand, a friend who worked with Kershner on 1972's "Up the Sandbox," said, "He had the most incredible spirit, an exuberance for life. Always working, always thinking, always writing, amazingly gifted and forever curious."
At the time of his death, Kershner was working on a documentary about his friend, writer Ray Bradbury, and a musical called "Djinn" about the friendship between a Jewish immigrant and an Arab sheik in Palestine before it became Israel.
Kershner is survived by two sons, David and Dana.
"My father never really retired. He had a powerful drive to create — whether it be through film, photography or writing," David Kershner said.