John G. Avildsen, Director of 'Rocky,' 'Karate Kid' Films, Dies at 81

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By Carmel Dagan

John G. Avildsen, who won an Oscar for directing the original Rocky (1976), starring Sylvester Stallone, and also directed all three of the original Karate Kid films, has died in Los Angeles. He was 81.

A rep confirmed his death.

Avildsen also won the DGA Award for directing Rocky, which also won Oscars for best picture and film editing and was nominated in multiple other categories.

In 2006 Variety interviewed Avildsen, who said that a film with a boxing story didn’t excite him at first, but he was “moved by the urban character study of Sylvester Stallone’s script.” He held out on directing part two in lieu of another project — a decision that Avildsen said was “one of my greatest mistakes.” He returned to the franchise to direct 1990’s Rocky V.

In 1983 he was Oscar nominated again, this time for the documentary short Traveling Hopefully.

Avildsen developed a reputation for making movies about losers, or underdogs, who somehow become winners.

Avildsen’s other films included the critically hailed drama-thriller Joe (1970), starring Susan Sarandon and Peter Boyle. It was his first success as a director, and was praised for Peter Boyle’s performance.

Save the Tiger (1973), an issue-oriented drama sporting an outstanding starring performance from Jack Lemmon, was nominated for three Oscars, with Lemmon winning best actor. The three Oscar nominations for Save the Tiger and the win for Lemmon secured Avildsen’s place on the list of go-to directors.

His other films included comedy W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975), starring Burt Reynolds; thriller The Formula (1980), starring George C. Scott and Marlon Brando; eerie comedy Neighbors, starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd; pregnancy comedy For Keeps? (1988), starring Molly Ringwald; drama Lean on Me (1989), which helped launch Morgan Freeman’s career; and bull riding biopic 8 Seconds (1994), starring Luke Perry.

Avildsen started in the business as a cinematographer, lensing seven films from the mid-’60s to the early ’70s, including his feature directorial debut Turn on to Love (1969) and subsequent helming efforts Guess What We Learned in School Today, Joe, Cry Uncle, Okay Bill and The Stoolie (1972), starring Jackie Mason.

John Guilbert Avildsen was born in Oak Park, Illinois. He graduated from the prestigious Hotchkiss School and NYU. He started out in the film business as an assistant director on movies by Arthur Penn and Otto Preminger.

A documentary on the director’s life and career, John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs (2016), directed and produced by Derek Wayne Johnson, features interviews with Stallone, Karate Kid star Ralph Macchio, Martin Scorsese, Jerry Weintraub and Burt Reynolds. The documentary is a companion to the book The Films of John G. Avildsen: Rocky, The Karate Kid, and Other Underdogs, written by Larry Powell and Tom Garrett.

Avildsen is survived by a daughter, Bridget, and sons Anthony, Jonathan and Ashley.


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