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

John Avildsen
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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.”

Stallone said in a statement, “I owe just about everything to John Avildsen. His directing, his passion, his toughness and his heart — a great heart — is what made ‘Rocky’ the film it became. He changed my life and I will be forever indebted to him. Nobody could have done it better than my friend John Avildsen. I will miss him.”

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

The Director’s Guild released a statement, saying “We were greatly saddened to learn of the passing of beloved director John Avildsen. His iconic ‘Rocky,’ which won the DGA Feature Film Award in 1976, has been lionized throughout our culture as the quintessential underdog story – a recurring theme in his notable body of work which included ‘Save the Tiger’ and ‘The Karate Kid’ franchise. Throughout the decades, his rousing portrayals of victory, courage and emotion captured the hearts of generations of Americans.”

He served on the DGA’s National Board for three terms, on the DGA’s Eastern Directors Council from 1977-1990, on the Western Directors Council from 1992-1994, and was a member of the 1987 and 1996 DGA Negotiating Committees.

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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  1. Drew says:

    One of great endings in cinema history, How many people walked away and didn’t even know Apollo had won?.. Rocky was not a boxing movie, it was a love story, and Rocky was indeed a big winner at life..

    I saw Joe many years ago, and it was very good, too, although not the most pleasing subject matter.. RIP Mr Avildsen..

  2. Ben says:

    R.I.P. Mr. Rocky.

  3. Me says:

    He was going to direct “Howard Stern Private Parts” the movie. But no. True story.

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