John G. Avildsen, Oscar-Winning Director of 'Rocky,' Dies at 81

Karate Kid BTS 1984 - John Avildsen - Photofest - H 2017

He also guided Jack Lemmon to an Academy Award in 'Save the Tiger' and helmed the first three 'Karate Kid' films.

John G. Avildsen, who won an Academy Award for directing Rocky and helmed the first three original Karate Kid movies, has died. He was 81.

Avildsen died Friday of pancreatic cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, his son, Anthony, told the Los Angeles Times.

Avildsen also directed Susan Sarandon and Peter Boyle in the ultimately violent drama Joe (1970); guided Jack Lemmon to the Academy Award for best actor in Save the Tiger (1973) in a story about a businessman having a mid-life crisis; and kept things together on the set of The Formula (1980), which starred the temperamental actors George C. Scott and Marlon Brando.

Rocky (1976), of course, starred Sylvester Stallone as a determined Philadelphia club fighter who goes on to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world.

"When this script [also written by Stallone] came to me from an old friend … I said I had no interest in boxing, I think boxing's sort of a dumb thing," Avildsen said in an interview with the Baltimore Sun last year. "He pleaded and pleaded, so I finally read the thing. And on the second or third page, he's talking to his turtles, Cuff and Link. I was charmed by it, and I thought it was an excellent character study and a beautiful love story. And I said yes."

He received another Oscar nom in 1983 for directing the documentary short Traveling Hopefully and returned to work with Stallone again in Rocky V (1990).

Avildsen also called the shots on The Karate Kid (1984), the inspirational film that starred Pat Morita as an Okinawan martial arts master who agrees to teach karate to a bullied teenager (Ralph Macchio), then stayed on for the sequels in 1986 and 1989.

"Mr. Miyagi was the ideal surrogate father that everybody wished they had," Avildsen said in the Sun piece. "He was wise, he was generous, he was funny. He was a fairy godmother. And Pat Morita brought him to life, he was ideal. Who could be better?"

The franchise brought in almost a quarter-billion dollars at the box office.

"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," DGA president Paris Barclay said in a statement. "Throughout the decades, his rousing portrayals of victory, courage and emotion captured the hearts of generations of Americans."

MGM chairman and CEO Gary Barber also shared in a statement: "We mourn the loss of John G. Avildsen, one of America's treasured filmmakers. Everyone remembers the first time when they saw Rocky. For over 40 years, the enduring classic underdog story about an every man overcoming all odds defined generations of moviegoers. He will always be remembered by his MGM family."

Rocky star Stallone remembered the late director on social media and in a statement to THR. "I owe just about everything to John Avildsen," he said. "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."

Karate Kid star Ralph Macchio echoed Stallone's sentiments in a separate statement: "His earlier films, Rocky and Save the Tiger, helped influence my adolescence. His guidance in the creation of Daniel LaRusso and direction in The Karate Kid became an influence that changed my life. There are countless examples where his guiding hand created much of the magic we were able to achieve on screen."

Avildsen's film résumé also included W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975), starring Burt Reynolds; Neighbors (1981) with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd; Lean on Me (1989), with Morgan Freeman playing a real-life high school principal in an inner city; and 8 Seconds (1994), starring Luke Perry.

A native of Oak Park, Ill., Avildsen started out as a cinematographer, and he shot his directorial debut, Turn on to Love (1969).

He was the subject of a documentary, John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs, that premiered this year at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.