Director John Avildsen dies at 81; won Oscar for ‘Rocky’

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Director John Avildsen dies at 81; won Oscar for ‘Rocky’

Avildsen, who directed “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid” — two dark-horse, underdog favorites that went on to become Hollywood franchises — died Friday at age 81. Anthony Avildsen said his father died Friday in Los Angeles from pancreatic cancer. “He was a pretty extraordinary man in my estimation. He was super talented and very driven and very stubborn and that was to his detriment but also often to his benefit,” Anthony Avildsen said.

“Rocky” was a huge success. It won Oscars for best picture, director (Avildsen) and editing and was nominated for seven others. No less a Hollywood eminence than Frank Capra loved it, telling The New York Times in 1977, “When I saw it, I said, ‘Boy, that’s a picture I wish I had made.’ ” For his part, Avildsen said Capra — who also championed underdogs on film — was his favorite director.

“Rocky” was a chance venture for Avildsen. Sylvester Stallone, then unknown, had written the script and sought Avildsen to direct it, but Avildsen was already working on another film. Suddenly the production company ran out of money and that film was canceled.

A friend sent Avildsen the “Rocky” script. “On page 3, this guy (Rocky) is talking to his turtles, and I was hooked,” Avildsen remarked. “It was a great character study.” Avildsen agreed to direct “Rocky” even though he knew nothing about boxing.

The film was shot on a tight budget, less than $1 million, and it was completed in 28 days. “The first time I showed it to 40 or 50 friends, they all freaked out, so that was encouraging,” he recalled. “But I guess when I saw the lines around the block, it began to take on a reality.”

Five sequels followed, but Avildsen turned them down, until the fourth, “Rocky V,” in 1990. He said he considered it a good script and liked that Rocky would die. During the shooting the producers decided Rocky had to live. “You don’t kill off your corporate assets,” Avildsen commented. The fifth sequel, “Rocky Balboa,” came out in 2006.