Longtime film director John G. Avildsen – who won an Academy Award for his work on the boxing classic Rocky – passed away on June 16, 2017. His son Anthony confirmed his father's death was due to pancreatic cancer. He was 81 years old.
Avildsen was born on December 21, 1935, in Oak Park, Illinois. He attended both The Hotchkiss School and New York University. Avildsen began his directing career working as an assistant director on various films by Arthur Penn and Otto Preminger. He made his feature directorial debut in Turn on to Love in 1969, followed by Guess What We Learned in School Today, Joe, Cry Uncle, Okay Bill, The Stoolie, and Save the Tiger, which was nominated for three Oscars, winning Best Actor for star Jack Lemmon.
After these two films centered around losers, Avildsen began to focus his projects on people who went on to be victorious. His greatest success came from the 1976 classic, Rocky, which he directed along with writer and star Sylvester Stallone. This film became the largest grossing film of 1976 and earned ten Academy Award nominations – winning three including Best Picture and Best Director. He later returned to the franchise to direct the 1990 Rocky V.
“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,” expressed Stallone in a statement.
In addition to the successful Rocky franchise, Avildsen directed another underdog with Karate Kid. The popular 1984 coming of age-sports movie led to 3 sequels (Avildsen directed Karate Kid 2 and 3) as well as a slate of popular Karate and martial arts-centered movies during the 1980s.
In 1983, Avildsen was nominated for another Oscar, this time for the documentary short Traveling Hopefully. Additional credits for Avildsen include the comedy W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, the 1980 thriller The Formula, the eerie comedy Neighbors, the pregnancy comedy For Keeps?, and the bull riding biopic 8 Seconds. His 1989 drama, Lean on Me, helped to launch Morgan Freeman’s career. 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.
An upcoming documentary on the life, career and films of Avildsen is currently in production. John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs is directed and produced by Derek Wayne Johnson, and features interviews with Stallone, Ralph Macchio, Martin Scorsese, Jerry Weintraub, and Burt Reynolds. This documentary serves as 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.