John G. Avildsen, the director responsible for two landmark action movies, Rocky and The Karate Kid, has passed away at the age of 81.
John G. Avildsen might not be a roll-off-the-tongue name for modern action audiences but his contribution to the genre proves that fans and the industry still owe him a great deal. Avildsen is the man who directed Rocky and The Karate Kid, two films that exceeded all expectations and became much beloved films with cult and mainstream credentials. He passed away from pancreatic cancer this past weekend aged 81.
1976’s Rocky was one of the earliest films to provide a breakthrough for Sylvester Stallone and it ultimately won the Oscar for Best picture, best Director and Best Editing (with seven other nominations). Stallone had written the screenplay and managed to secure Avildsen only after another film the director was working on fell through. Avildsen was makign a name for himself with intelligent, interesting films such as Joe (1970) and 1973’s Save the Tiger (which secure Jack Lemmon an Oscar win)
While there was no guarantee of Rocky being a major hit, Avildsen took the job on the strength of the script which he received through a mutual friend and saw as a great character-study of an under-dog. The film took less than a month to shoot with a budget of around $1million and it wasn’t until word-of-mouth began on its release that either man knew they’d created something special. Avildsen turned down the subsequent sequels until persuaded to return for Rocky V where the plan was for the title character to die, though the studio ultimately decided against that fate.
In a statement after news of Avildsen’s passing broke, Stallone said: “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.”
1984’s The Karate Kid may have been aimed at a younger audience, but it told a not dissimilar story of a fighter learning what is worth fighting for. Ralph Macchio famously played the young Daniel, a boy who is bullied by his new class-mates and finds purpose and wisdom from local handyman and quiet karate guru Mr Myiagi (Noryuki “Pat” Morita). was another surprise hit. The film was a success and brought Morita – more famous until then for his television roles – an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
The film had two official sequels which Avildsen was persuaded to direct and though neither were as beloved with audiences, they retained enough heart of the original to be considered successful (the first sequel, in 1986, saw Daniel and Mr. Myiagi heading to Japan and the third, in 1989, saw a pre-Oscar-success Hillary Swank as a new pupil). The original film was remade in 2010, directed by Harald Zwart, to middling reviews.
Avildsen was picky about his projects and generally preferred productions with some optimism in their stories. He was going to direct Saturday Night Fever (with newcomer John Travolta as the star) but parted ways over the tone of the piece. He would go on to direct George C. Scott and Marlon Brando in The Formula (1980) Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in Neighbors (1981); and Morgan Freeman in Lean on Me (1989).
He was far less prolific in the last two decades with several projects ultimately proving paler imitations of past efforts, but he retained respect for his landmark films. A documentary by his son Anthony , John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival earlier this year and will be released digitally in August.
Avildsen is survived by his sons Jonathan, Ashley and Anthony, and daughter Bridget.