Kershner taught George Lucas when the future auteur was still a film school student at the University of Southern California. Lucas was surely impressed with him as a teacher and as a director of noteworthy films such as Eyes of Laura Mars, The Return of a Man Called Horse, and the critically acclaimed TV movie Raid on Entebbe. While many others have received credit for the success of Empire Strikes Back, there can be no doubt that Kershner's guiding hand played a major role in the movie's emotional and visual power.
Empire featured the best acting performances in any of the Star Wars films. Whatever skills George Lucas may have had in bringing out the best in actors, as evidenced by American Graffiti or A New Hope, clearly was not on display in the prequels that Lucas later directed, or even in the follow-up to Empire that Richard Marquand directed, Return of the Jedi.
Kershner managed to bring gravitas to a performance by a puppet, turning Yoda into a believable and powerful character, which future Star Wars episodes would find difficult or impossible to replicate. He made the love story between Han Solo and Princess Leia ring true. He perfectly captured the action and drama in the pivotal duel between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, which still ranks as one of the greatest and most memorable scenes of all time.
Irvin Kershner never again achieved the level of brilliance he reached with Empire Strikes Back, even though he had some interesting opportunities in the years that followed, including Sean Connery's return to the James Bond franchise in Never Say Never Again, the sequel RoboCop 2, and television episodes of Amazing Stories and SeaQuest 2032.
Empire was so different in tone to the prior Star Wars film and to the sequels and prequels that followed, it is not really a surprise that it received mixed reviews when it was first released and made the least amount of money compared to the other two in the original trilogy (even though it still made a bundle). I wonder how Lucas felt about the entire experience and whether he took to heart some of the lessons on display when Kershner was directing. The end result in the later Star Wars episodes clearly shows that Lucas abandoned the darker imagery and the more heartfelt acting performances that Kershner embraced and handled so well. One can only guess what could have been if Kershner was hired to direct Star Wars again.
His vision and craftsmanship will be missed.