John Avildsen, Academy Award Winning Director of ‘Rocky,’ Dies

John Avildsen, the director of two iconic films, Rocky and The Karate Kid, has died.

Avildsen, who was 81, died Friday in Los Angeles from pancreatic cancer, his family said.

The Rocky movies

Avildsen told the Baltimore Sun newspaper last year that at first he had no interest in directing Rocky, a movie, released in 1976, about a struggling boxer. He said, however, when he read the second or third page of the script when Rocky is “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.”

​Rocky, which won the Academy Award for best film, also earned Avildsen the best director award. 

Rocky catapulted Sylvester Stallone to fame, winning him a best actor Oscar nomination for his performance in the title role. Stallone, who also wrote Rocky, said in a statement Friday, “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.”

Rocky sequels followed, but Avildsen declined to direct them, however, he gave in and directed Rocky V.

The Karate Kid

Like Rocky, the popularity of the 1984 film The Karate Kid could not have been predicted.

The film about a martial arts master who teaches karate to a bullied teenager, was a summer box office hit. Two sequels followed The Karate Kid and Avildsen directed both of them.

Paris Barclay, the president of the Directors Guild of America, said of Avildsen in a statement Friday: “Throughout the decades, his rousing portrayals of victory, courage and emotion captured the hearts of generations of Americans.”

Filmmaker’s hope

“My hope as a filmmaker,” Avildsen told the Los Angeles Times in 1971, “is to make people feel a little differently about something when they leave the theater.”

Other Avildsen-directed films include: Joe starring Peter Boyle, Save the Tiger starring Jack Lemon, W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings starring Burt Reynolds, The Formula starring George C. Scott and Marlon Brando, Neighbors starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, and Lean on Me starring Morgan Freeman. 

A documentary about the director, John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs, was released earlier this year.

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