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John Avildsen Dies: Oscar-Winning ‘Rocky’ Director And ‘Karate Kid’ Helmer Was 81

Deadline logo Deadline 6/17/2017 Patrick Hipes
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UPDATE with statements from Sylvester Stallone, MGM’s Gary Barber, DGA: John G. Avildsen, who won the Best Director Oscar for 1977’s Best Picture winner Rocky that introduced the world to Sylvester Stallone, and who later helmed three Karate Kid movies, has died in Los Angeles. He was 81.

The Los Angeles Timesreported that Avildsen’s eldest son said the director had pancreatic cancer.

Avildsen, who started in the business as a cinematographer, broke into directing with movies like 1970’s Joe starring Peter Boyle and then Save The Tiger, which won Jack Lemmon a Best Actor Oscar in 1974. Three years later, he took on a script from Stallone and made Rocky, which also earned Stallone a Best Actor Oscar nom and launched one of moviedom’s most iconic franchises. The pair later reunited for 1990’s Rocky V.

Said Stallone: “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 ultimately 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.”

Stallone, earlier, remembered the director in an Instagram post:

MGM chairman and CEO Gary Barber issued a statement Friday. “We mourn the loss of John G. Avildsen, one of America’s treasured filmmakers,” he said. “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.”

The director found himself at the helm of another big franchise when he directed 1984’sThe Karate Kid starring Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita. He also helmed the next two sequels. Other directing credits include 1981’s dark comedy Neighbors starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd and 1989’s Lean On Me with Morgan Freeman as a tough inner-city school principal with a heart of gold.

According to IMDb, he was attached to a pair of movies in development: a biopic of Guardian Angels leader Curtis Sliwa and a road trip comedy Nate & Al starring Martin Landau and Josh Peck. A documentary, John G. Avildsen: King Of The Underdogs, won the docu prize at the Beverly Hills Film Festival this spring. It bows on VOD and Blu-ray on August 1.

Avildsen also served on the DGA’s National Board for three terms, including as First Vice President from 1978-1981, and among other roles was a member of the 1987 and 1996 negotiating committees. He also won the DGA Award for Rocky in 1976.

“We were greatly saddened to learn of the passing of beloved director John Avildsen,” DGA president Paris Barclay said today. “His iconic Rocky, which won the DGA Feature Film Award in 1976, has been lionized throughout our culture as the quintessential underdog story — a recurring theme in his notable body of work which included Save The Tiger and The Karate Kid franchise. Throughout the decades, his rousing portrayals of victory, courage and emotion captured the hearts of generations of Americans.

“A prolific director, John always found the time to give back to his guild — from his service on our National Board as First Vice President and Assistant Treasurer, to his work on the Eastern and Western Directors Councils and DGA Negotiating Committee — advancing and protecting the creative and economic rights of directors. Our hearts go out to his family and friends during this difficult time.”

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