Kershner died Saturday in Los Angeles after a long illness, said Adriana Santini, a France-based actress who is a family friend. He is survived by two sons, she said. His agent, Derek Maki, also confirmed the death Monday in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
Kershner was born in Philadelphia in 1923 and attended Temple University's Tyler School of Fine Arts.
Kershner already had made a number of well-received movies when he was hired by George Lucas to direct "Empire," which was the second produced but fifth in the "Star Wars" chronology.
The 1980 production was a darker story than the original. In it, hero Luke Skywalker loses a hand and learns that villain Darth Vader is his father. The movie initially got mixed reviews but has gone on to become one of the most critically praised.
Kershner told Vanity Fair in October that he tried to give the sequel more depth than the original.
"When I finally accepted the assignment, I knew that it was going to be a dark film, with more depth to the characters than in the first film," he said. "It took a few years for the critics to catch up with the film and to see it as a fairy tale rather than a comic book."
Kershner said he had only one sharp disagreement with Lucas. The script originally called for the heroine, Princess Leia, to tell space pilot Han Solo "I love you" and for him to reply "I love you, too."
"I shot the line and it just didn't seem right for the character of Han Solo," Kershner said.
Instead, actor Harrison Ford improvised the reply: "I know."
Lucas wanted the original line but after test previews agreed to leave in Ford's reply, which has gone on to be one of the best-known lines in the series.
Kershner had both musical and photographic training and worked as a freelance illustrator before he turned to filmmaking. He graduated from the University of Southern California film school and in the 1950s made U.S. government informational films in Greece, Turkey and the Middle East.
He was a director and cameraman for a television documentary series called "Confidential File" in Los Angeles before getting his first movie break in 1958 when Roger Corman hired him to shoot a low-budget feature called "Stakeout on Dope Street."
He went on to direct a number of noted features in the 1960s and 1970s, including "A Fine Madness" with Sean Connery, Joanne Woodward and Jean Seberg, "The Flim-Flam Man" with George C. Scott, "Loving" with George Segal and Eva Marie Saint, and "The Eyes of Laura Mars" with Faye Dunaway.
The 1976 television movie "Raid on Entebbe" earned him an Emmy nomination for direction.
Besides "Empire," his big-budget work included the 1983 James Bond movie "Never Say Never Again" with Connery and "Robocop 2" in 1990.
Kershner also was an occasional actor. He played the priest Zebedee in Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ."
He also was a faculty member at the University of Southern California.
AP Entertainment writer Alicia Quarles in New York and AP writer Angela Doland in Paris contributed to this report.