Hardly a household name but John G. Avildsen (the G stood for Guilbert) gave the world two great sports movie which were more about the underdog rather than the sport itself. The films were Rocky and The Karate Kid both huge successes in their day and one of which launched the career of Sylvester Stallone.
Avidlsen was born in 1935 in Illinois and went to high school in Connecticut and before going onto to work in advertising in New York whilst doing night classes in university there. He was called up to join the army and discharged in 1961 with honours. Back in civvy street he got a job as an assistant director to a fellow ex copywriter Jack O Connell who made The Greenwich Village Story. He worked in a variety of capacity including Editor, Cinematographer, writer and camera operator but it was as a director that he really made his mark. Having directed some short one reel films as well as training films he moved into features with his first film being Turn on to Love (1969). His work rate was prolific turning out at least one film sometimes two until 1973 when he directed Save the Tiger starring Jack Lemmon earning and winning him a Best Actor Oscar. It was his ability to direct actors that bought him to the attention of Stallone who at the time was a struggling actor who had written Rocky for himself to star in and was hawking the script around Hollywood. Stallone pursued Avildsen to direct but he was working on another project which, when cancelled, left him free to do Rocky. The script had originally been sent to him by a friend and with a budget of only $1m with 28 days to shoot it and a star that no one had heard of it was hardly going to be a contender for anything. How wrong he was. Rocky was Oscar nominated for ten awards winning Best Picture, Best Director and Best Editing and getting Stallone two nominations for Best Actor and Best Screenplay too.
Avildsen was a director who actors wanted to work with but whilst the actors were great (Marlon Brando, George C Scott) the films were less so (The Formula, Neighbors,). ‘Neighbors’ starred Saturday Night Live comedy gods John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd but tension between Avildsen and Belushi got to poisonous proportions.
Fortunately his sporting underdog movies would turn to gold again with The Karate Kid which he himself called ‘the KaRocky Kid’ . It was a sincere crowd pleaser and demonstrated his skills with new actors earning Pat Morita a best supporting actor Oscar nomination. Avildsen went onto to direct the sequel two years later and a third film in 1989. It was the first time he made a sequel having turned down the follow up to Rocky, a decision he went on record as having regretted not doing. However he did return some years later to direct Rocky V in 1990 after the jingoistic Rocky IV. Rocky V was intended to be a final film in the franchise with the boxer dying but the studio, wary of killing a successful franchise, changed their mind and Rocky went on to further films.
The underdog boxer story was recycled in ‘The Power of One’ and another sports film ‘8 seconds’ followed a few years later neither of which doing much business at the box office and his final film was with Jean Claude Van Damme called Inferno and after that Avildsen called it a day on further directing jobs.
Like all directors he had turned down a number of projects that went on to great success and he had turned down Saturday Night Fever after a fall out with the studio over the ubiquitous ‘creative differences’.
Twice married he had four children two of which followed him into the film industry. Sadly on 16th June 2017 he succumbed to pancreatic cancer that he had been battling with for some years