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Empire Strikes Back, Irvin Kershner

Twentieth Century Fox Film; Eric Charbonneau/Le Studio/Wireimage

How do you compete with Star Wars? Empire Strikes Back.

Irvin Kershner, who directed the all-but-certified best of the Star Wars sequels and prequels, if not the best film of the series, has died. He was 87.

"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," critic Roger Ebert wrote in a four-star review, published upon the sequel's 1997 rerelease. "This is the heart."

And, for what it's worth, Ebert judged Empire the finest of the original films.

In a 1990 interview posted on StarWars.com, Kershner spoke of the enormity of directing the followup to Star Wars—and abiding by George Lucas' vision. 

"If the second one worked, then [Lucas] could make more," Kershner said. "If the second one didn't work, then that would be the end of Star Wars."

Empire worked. The movie, which established the paternity of Luke Skywalker, sparked romance between the freezer-bound Han Solo and Princess Leia, introduced the universe to Yoda, and minted such oft-quoted lines as "I am your father" and "I love you/I know," ruled the 1980 box office. 

In a statement today, Empire costar Billy Dee Williams (aka Lando Calrissian) remembered Kershner as a "mountain of a man."

Kershner was in his 50s when he got the Empire gig—not the obvious choice for a bearded New Hollywood upstart as Lucas was then. But Kershner and Lucas had history: Lucas studied at USC; Kershner taught there--and championed the early Lucas film, THX 1138

Beyond Empire, Kershner directed Sean Connery's final James Bond, Never Say Never Again, and RoboCop 2. Other credits included the 1972 Barbra Streisand comedy, Up the Sandbox.

Kershner passed away Saturday in Los Angeles, his reps announced today. He had been battling lung cancer for more three years.

(Originally published Nov. 29, 2010, at 9:31 a.m. PT)