Oscar Directors: Avildsen, John G.–Background, Career, Awards

John G. Avildsen Career Summation

August 8, 2020

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Career Span: 1969–2017

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John Guilbert Avildsen (December 21, 1935 – June 16, 2017) is perhaps best known for directing Rocky (1976), which earned him the Best Director Oscar.  Other films he directed include Joe (1970), Save the Tiger (1973), The Formula (1980), Neighbors (1981), Lean on Me (1989), Rocky V (1990), 8 Seconds (1994), and the first three The Karate Kid films.

Avildsen was born in Oak Park, Illinois, the son of Ivy (née Guilbert) and Clarence John Avildsen. He was educated at the Hotchkiss School and at New York University. He was of Danish heritage.

After starting out as an assistant director on films by Arthur Penn and Otto Preminger, Avildsen’s early low-budget feature Joe (1970) received good notices for star Peter Boyle and moderate box-office business.

Avildsen’s first success came with the low-budget 1971 cult classic comedy film Cry Uncle!, a 1971 American film in the Troma Entertainment library that stars Allen Garfield.

This was followed by Save the Tiger (1973), a film nominated for three Oscars, winning Best Actor for Jack Lemmon. Both Joe and Save the Tiger were about losers, but as the 1970s continued, Avildsen shifted to people who went on to be victorious.

His greatest success was Rocky (1976), which he directed working in conjunction with writer and star Sylvester Stallone. The film was a major critical and commercial success, becoming the highest-grossing film of 1976 and garnering ten Academy Award nominations and winning three, including Best Picture and Best Director. Avildsen later returned to direct what was then expected to be the series’ final installment, Rocky V (1990). (Later installments were released in 2006, 2015, and 2018).

He directed the mystery-drama The Formula (1980), starring Marlon Brando and George C. Scott, for which he was nominated for Razzie Award for Worst Director.

Avildsen’s other films include Neighbors (1981), For Keeps (1988), Lean on Me (1989), The Power of One (1992), 8 Seconds (1994) and the first three The Karate Kid films.

He was the original director for both Serpico (1973) and Saturday Night Fever (1977), but was fired over disputes with, respectively, producers Martin Bregman and Robert Stigwood.

His last film was Inferno (1999), starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.

A documentary on the life, career and films of Avildsen was released in August 2017. John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs (2017), directed and produced by Derek Wayne Johnson, features interviews with Sylvester Stallone, Ralph Macchio, Martin Scorsese, Jerry Weintraub, and Burt Reynolds. The documentary is a companion to the book “The Films of John G. Avildsen: Rocky, The Karate Kid, and other Underdogs,” written by Larry Powell and Tom Garrett.

Avildsen died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on June 16, 2017, age 81 of pancreatic cancer.

Avildsen’s first wife was Marie Olga Maturevich (Melissa McCall). After they divorced, he married actress Tracy Brooks Swope in 1987; they separated in 2006.  He had five children. His estranged son Ash (born November 5, 1981), founded Sumerian Records. Another son, Jonathan Avildsen, appeared in the films The Karate Kid Part III and Rocky V. His eldest son was named Anthony and he had a daughter Penelope Avildsen. John also had a daughter with Tracy Swope, Bridget.

Filmography

1969 Turn on to Love
1970 Guess What We Learned in School Today?
Joe
1971 Cry Uncle!
1971 Okay Bill
1973 Save the Tiger
1974 The Stoolie
1975 Fore Play
W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings
1976 Rocky Academy Award for Best Director
Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing – Feature Film
Nominated—Golden Globe Award for Best Director
Nominated—BAFTA Award for Best Direction
1978 Slow Dancing in the Big City
1980 The Formula Nominated—Razzie Award for Worst Director
1981 Neighbors
1982 Traveling Hopefully Nominated—Oscar, Best Documentary Short Subject
1983 A Night in Heaven
1984 The Karate Kid
1986 The Karate Kid Part II
1987 Happy New Year
1988 For Keeps
1989 Lean on Me
The Karate Kid Part III Nominated—Razzie Award for Worst Director
1990 Rocky V Nominated—Razzie Award for Worst Director
1992 The Power of One
1994 8 Seconds
1999 Inferno