Yesterday I heard about the deaths of two people who shaped my limited experiences for the better as child. This may sound clichéd, but it’s completely true. The first was comedic actor Leslie Nielsen; the second was Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner.
My first encounter with Leslie Nielsen was with Airplane! and The Naked Gun movies. The Naked Gun had its roots in the Police Squad! series which had only lasted six episodes. I remember watching those movies, along with Chuck Norris and Cynthia Rothrock videos with my dad. It was truly one of the best bonding experiences a young boy and his father could have outside of fishing and I was always a little apprehensive of taking catfish off of the hook in fear of getting my hands cut by the whiskers. Neilsen’s performances were slapstick mixed with subversive lines that were delivered like an expert magician, with misdirection. Even though the comedies he was in by today’s standards are innocent, I felt at the time like I was in on the adult humor and was member of a club whose only members were me, my dad, and no one else.
Later, in high school, I caught Nielsen in an episode of Highway to Heaven that was filmed the year before the first ‘Naked Gun’. I was surprised to learn that at one time, Nielsen had been a dramatic actor. I even learned that he cut his teeth in sci-fi. Before acting with accused murderer O.J. Simpson, the future Lt. Frank Drebin played opposite Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet.
My first introduction with Irvin Kershner happened years earlier. The experience wasn’t a particularly good one either. My mom and dad took me to the theater to see The Empire Strikes Back. I was four years old. Seeing Luke suspended in a rejuvenating chamber while hooked to breathing tubes shook me to my toddler core. Between the imagery of seeing my hero near death and the bombastic percussion of the AT-ATs stomping through the icy Hoth landscape, I was crying in a way that makes your bottom lip tremble. As to not torture their only child psychologically, my parents promptly left the theater with me clutching their hands.
Years later, always on Fridays, my dad would rent a suitcase-sized VCR from Curtis Mathes along with a stack of VHS tapes for the weekend. My first rental tapes had been films or shows that I had been familiar with like G.I. Joe, E.T., and even The Care Bears. One Friday evening, my dad took me to the store after work and let me pick out a tape on my own. I remember grabbing the empty rental box for The Empire Strikes Back on the shelf and taking it to the counter to have it exchanged for the video. I was finally going to be a man and watch the movie that had caused my parents to leave the movie theater abruptly just a few years ago.
What had scared me before intrigued me now. I sat down, this time by myself, and watched the entire film without pause or pausing. I had never seen a a cliffhanger and I had certainly never seen a movie where the bad-guys seemingly won. I championed the heroes, felt empathy for Luke when he found out that his dad was a dick and wished desperately that I had a small green sage to teach me the ways of the Force instead of going to school on Monday. One dispelled myth at the time was that Yoda’s appearance was based on the likeness of Kershner. I still like to believe that this one is true.
Every time I’ve seen the movie since, I’ve appreciated it more and more especially in comparison to its subsequent sequels, prequels and cartoons. It’s many fan’s favorite of the series and I imagine that the reason has a lot to do with Kershner’s direction.
Producer Gary Kurtz said this in an interview recently. “I took a master class with Billy Wilder once and he said that in the first act of a story you put your character up in a tree and the second act you set the tree on fire and then in the third you get him down,” Kurtz said. “ ‘Empire’ was the tree on fire. The first movie was like a comic book, a fantasy, but ‘Empire’ felt darker and more compelling. It’s the one, for me, where everything went right.”
Even now, an original ‘Empire’ poster hangs in my dining room. So every time I’m eating in there, I see his name in print. I haven’t really celebrated Kershner’s other movies the same way and I know what you’re thinking. “Surely, you can’t be serious.” I am serious… and don’t call me Shirley.