John Avildsen, Director of ‘Rocky’ and ‘The Karate Kid,’ Dies at 81
John G. Avildsen, who as the director of “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid” created pop culture touchstones by telling stories of down-and-out characters finding triumph, died on Friday in Los Angeles. He was 81.
Anthony Avildsen, Mr. Avildsen’s son, said the cause was pancreatic cancer, according to The Associated Press.
Last year, Mr. Avildsen, who had steadily made films for nearly a half century, told The Baltimore Sun that he was initially hesitant about taking on “Rocky” — the story, written by and starring Sylvester Stallone, of the rise of a big-hearted working-class boxer from South Philadelphia. But the director said he was eventually won over by its character study and love story: “I was charmed by it,” he said.
“I guess what ‘Rocky’ did was give a lot of people hope, and there was never a better feeling than doing that,” Mr. Avildsen said after his film earned him the Academy Award for best director in 1977. “And I had a lot of people who gave me things. Sylvester Stallone gave me his guts and his heart and his best shot.” The film, which also won the Oscar for best picture, made Mr. Stallone a star.
Mr. Avildsen’s 1973 drama, “Save the Tiger,” earned Jack Lemmon a best-actor Oscar for his performance as a clothing executive dealing with a failing business and moral conflict. And his 1982 short documentary, “Traveling Hopefully,” was nominated for an Academy Award.
“The Karate Kid,” which had its premiere in 1984, is the story of a teenager who outwits bullies and becomes a karate champion with the help of his martial arts mentor. Like “Rocky,” it culminates in an all-out fight scene.
In fact, when Mr. Avildsen first read the script for “The Karate Kid,” he called it “The KaRocky Kid,” according to The New York Times, because of its similarities to “Rocky.” Mr. Avildsen went on to direct the second and third “Karate Kid” movies.
Mr. Avilden’s acclaimed “Lean on Me” (1989), starring Morgan Freeman as Joe Clark, a principal who fought to bring order to his New Jersey high school, was his first film based on a real person.
“My thoughts were, whether they’re real or fictional, you’ve got to keep the people awake in the theater and try to make the characters as dramatic and effective as possible,” he told The Times in 1989.
Mr. Avildsen returned to the “Rocky” franchise with “Rocky V” in 1990. (The second, third and fourth films in the series had been directed by Mr. Stallone.) Among his other memorable films was “Joe” (1970), starring Peter Boyle as a factory worker who goes on an anti-hippie rampage.
The title of a new documentary about Mr. Avildsen tips its hat to his reputation for telling rags-to-riches tales. The film, which includes interviews with Mr. Stallone, the director Martin Scorsese and the “Karate Kid” star Ralph Macchio, is called “John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs.”