In Passing: Leslie Nielsen and Irvin Kershner

by | Nov 29th, 2010 | 5:05PM | Filed under: News

Two men responsible for helping create some of the most iconic movie moments of the ’80s passed away this weekend–one is certainly familiar to us all, the other you may only know if you’re a film or Star Wars buff.

Leslie Nielsen, 1926-2010

Leslie Nielsen died Sunday in Florida of complications from pneumonia. He was 84.

The Canadian-born Nielsen came up through the Hollywood ranks the way so many actors did in the ’50s and ’60s, working in television and then transitioning over into film westerns. He started to make a name for himself as a serious actor in Westerns and other genre films, including The Plainsman, Forbidden Planet, and The Poseidon Adventure.

It was exactly that  solid, deep-voiced authority image that Nielsen used to such great and hilarious subversive effect when he first teamed up with the production team of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker for Airplane! in 1980. The comedy creators knew they needed the straightest of straight men to sell their outrageous gags–someone so completely not in on the joke. Nielsen was so perfectly their man that they went on to create the 1982 TV show Police Squad! around him. When the show died a quick, unappreciated death on TV, the team took it to the big screen and launched the popular Naked Gun film franchise with Nelsen’s oblivious buffoon Frank Drebin at the center.

“I am serious… and don’t call me Shirley.”

Irvin Kershner, 1923-2010

Irvin Kershner, who directed The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, died Saturday in Los Angeles from lung cancer. He was 87.

Kershner had been making films in Hollywood and lecturing at USC’s film school since the late ’50s, including directing work for hire such as The Return of a Man Called Horse and The Eyes of Laura Mars. Then in the late ’70s one of his former students, George Lucas, asked him to direct the second film in what Lucas was now envisioning as his Star Wars franchise.

In many ways The Empire Strikes Back was yet another work for hire, but Kershner brought to that first sequel a rich, non-nonsense Old-Hollywood style that makes it the absolute, unarguable best of the six Star Wars films. All those warm colors; the emphasis on character close-ups; and even good performances from three lead actors who, let’s be honest, were not the greatest natural thespians around. That’s all Kershner’s doing–the humanity of Star Wars. Though Kershner preferred to stay outside the Hollywood system, he was an old-school journeyman director in the best sense–knowing exactly how to make you care about characters and stories without a lot of stylistic or psychological fuss.

Lest you ever doubt how important Irvin Kershner was to ESB’s creative success, just look at every Star Wars film that came after and ask yourself, “What if Kershner had directed them?” Instead, the director went on to do two more work-for-hire feature films: the Sean Connery comeback Bond film Never Say Never Again and RoboCop 2.


Buy Nielsen’s movies from redbox:

Buy Kershner’s movies from redbox:

3 Responses to “In Passing: Leslie Nielsen and Irvin Kershner”

  1. Matthew S. aka Matthew the Movie Geek
    Posted on November 30, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    It is a sad day indeed to lose two such great minds and talents.

    And a little tribute to which Star Wars is best, from the mind of ‘Clerks’…

    “Which did you like better? ‘Jedi’ or ‘The Empire Strikes Back?’”
    “‘Empire’ had the better ending. Luke gets his hand cut off, finds out Vader is his father, uh, Han gets frozen, taken away by Boba Fett. It ends on such a down note. I mean, that’s what life is, a series of down endings. All ‘Jedi’ had was a bunch of Muppets.”

    To be honest, as much as I love Empire and do sincerely appreciate how incredibly awe-some it is, and arguably the best Star Wars Film (I believe the original trilogy to be hold so many achievements for its time), I still find one of the most powerful scenes to be Luke and Darth Vadar’s face off with the Emperor watching in ‘Jedi’.

    *Spoiler, but hopefully you’ve seen the movies in sometime of your life, though I have met those who haven’t…*

    The scene where Luke is hiding, and Darth Vadar is moving around, tempting him, trying to incite him, and then he does with the, “Sister…” bit. The build up with, “If you will not turn to the Dark Side…then perhaps…she…will…” and then Luke yells in his rage, “NEVER!” and charges at Vadar, all of his hate, rage, and pain being channeled…I still get goosebumps at that scene.

    *End Spoiler*

    What I felt was greatest about Empire was the feeling you got that it was a Space Opera, which if I remember, was the original idea, to create a Space Opera. Grand, sweeping epic tales, fantastic characters, love, betrayal, good versus evil, all of it.

  2. Robert Rayppy
    Posted on December 3, 2010 at 11:03 am

    The movie ” AIRPLANE” with Leslie Nielsen one of the best comedies EVER.
    Good for a re-run for all genrations