John G. Avildsen, Oscar-winning director of 1977’s Best Picture Rocky, has died. He was 81. The L.A. Times reported that he had pancreatic cancer.
Born Dec. 21, 1935 in Oak Park, Illinois, Avildsen started in the movie business as a cinematographer. Among his early directorial efforts was Save the Tiger, which garnered star Jack Lemmon a Best Actor Oscar. Avildsen’sRocky catapulted its writer and star, Sylvester Stallone, into global stardom and launched a movie franchise which has exceeded $1.4 billion in worldwide box office receipts. Rocky was followed up with Rocky II, Rocky III, Rocky IV, Rocky V (also directed by Avildsen), Rocky Balboa, and most recently, Creed.
Avildsen also directed The Karate Kid starring Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita, a commercial success and a classic in its own right. Morita earned a Best Supporting actor nomination. Avildsen directed the two Karate Kid sequels as well.
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 ultimately 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.”
MGM chairman and CEO Gary Barber said 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 won the Director’s Guild of America Feature Film Award in 1976 and Avildsen served on the DGA’s National Board for three terms, including as First Vice President from 1978-1981. DGA president Paris Barclay said, “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. A prolific director, John always found the time to give back to his guild — from his service on our National Board as First Vice President and Assistant Treasurer, to his work on the Eastern and Western Directors Councils and DGA Negotiating Committee — advancing and protecting the creative and economic rights of directors. Our hearts go out to his family and friends during this difficult time.”
Avildsen also directed 1981’s Neighbors starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd and 1989’s Lean On Me starring Morgan Freeman. He continued to be active in the industry up until this year; his name was attached to two films in development: a biopic of Guardian Angels leader Curtis Sliwa and a road trip comedy Nate & Al starring Martin Landau and Josh Peck. He is the subject of a new documentary John G. Avildsen: King Of The Underdogs, which premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival earlier this year.
Avildsen is survived by sons Anthony, Jonathan and Ashley, and daughter, Bridget.