Oscar Directors: Avildsen, John G. (Rocky, The Karate Kid)

John Guilbert Avildsen was born on December 21, 1935 in Oak Park, Illinois.

The son of a tool manufacturer, he began his working career as an advertising copywriter.

After two years of military service as a chaplain’s assistant, he became an assistant director on a lowbudget indie feature, “The Greenwich Village Story” (1963).

He was an assistant director on “Black Like Me” (1964), assistant production manager on Arthur Penn’s “Mickey One” (1965), and production manager on the ItalianFrench film “Uno Moglia Americana” or “Run for Your Wife” (1965).

He was unit director on Otto Preminger’s “Hurry Sundown” (1967), and associate producer and director of photography on the lowbudget “Out of It” (1969). During this apprenticeship, he directed several shorts, including “Smiles and Light, and made several commercials for advertising agencies.

Avildsen launched his career as a feature director with two sex-oriented films, a melodrama and a satire.  He first drew critical attention with “Joe,” a low-budget film about a hardhat bigot (well played by Peter Boyle), which became a sleeper at the box-office in 1970.

After a string of disappointing films, he made another commercial sleeper in “Rocky” (1976), for which he won the Oscar as best director.  “Rocky” also won the best picture Oscar and spawned a series of sequels, of which Avildsen directed “Rocky V.”

Both “Joe” and “Save the Tiger” were about losers.  However, as the 1970s ended, reflecting the new zeitgeist, Avildsen made films about winners.  Avildsen’s greatest success was Rocky (1976),earning ten Oscar Award nominations and winning three, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Avildsen was the original director for both Serpico (1973) and Saturday Night Fever (1977), but was fired over disputes with producers Martin Bregman and Robert Stigwood, respectively.  Both projects became high-profile and successful pictures, directed by Sidney Lumet and , respectively

In 1980, he scored another boxoffice hit with “The Karate Kid,” which like “Rocky,” launched a popular film franchise.

Avildsen did his own cinematography on his early films and edited some of his later productions.

His other films include Cry Uncle! (1970), Neighbors (1981), Lean on Me (1989), and 8 Seconds (1994).

Oscar Alert

Avildsen is one of the few Oscar-winning directors to be nominated just once, in 1976, for “Rocky.” Clearly, he benefited from the sweep factor, when “Rocky” beat out all of its competitors.

The other nominees for Best Director in 1976 were: Ingmar Bergman for “Face to Face,” Sidney Lumet for “Network,” Alan J. Pakula for “All the President’s Men,” and Lina Wertmuller for “Seven Beauties.”

Note that two of the five directors were nominated for foreign-language pictures, and that Wertmuller became the first woman to receive Academy recognition.


Turn on to Love (1969)

Guess What We Learned in School Today? (1970)

Joe (1970)

Cry Uncle! (1971)

Okay Bill (1972)

Save the Tiger (1973)

The Stoolie (1974)

Fore Play (1975)

W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975)

Rocky (1976)

Slow Dancing in the Big City (1978)

The Formula (1980)

Neighbors (1981)

Traveling Hopefully (1982)

A Night in Heaven (1983)

The Karate Kid (1984)

The Karate Kid, Part II (1986)

Happy New Year (1987)

For Keeps (1988)

Lean on Me (1989)

The Karate Kid, Part III (1989)

Rocky V (1990)

The Power of One (1992)

 8 Seconds (1994)