Oscar Directors: Avildsen, John–Rocky Director, Remembered by Stallaone and Macchio

John G. Avildsen, who won the Best Director Oscar for Rocky and helmed the first three original Karate Kid movies, has died.

He died at 81 of pancreatic cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Avildsen also directed Susan Sarandon and Peter Boyle in the violent drama Joe (1970).  He 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

He was a lion tamer on the set of The Formula (1980), which starred  temperamental actors George C. Scott and Marlon Brando.

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

“When Stallone’s script 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 told the Baltimore Sun. “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 nomination in 1983 for directing the documentary short Traveling Hopefully and returned to work with Stallone again in Rocky V (1990).

Avildsen also helmed 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), and its two sequels, in 1986 and 1989.

“Mr. Miyagi was the ideal surrogate father that everybody wished they had,” Avildsen said. “He was wise, generous, 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 become the quintessential underdog story — a recurring theme in his 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 said: “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: “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.”

Karate Kid star Ralph Macchio echoed Stallone’s sentiment: “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. My thoughts are with his family and close friends. He will be missed.”

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, which premiered at the 2017 Santa Barbara Film Fest.