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 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, 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:
- Forbidden Planet on DVD and Blu-ray
- The Poseidon Adventure
- Police Squad! — The Complete Series
- The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!
- The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear