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

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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 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,” he 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 Stallone’s boxing franchise with 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.

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.

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