John G. Avildsen, a director who specialized in films with underdog protagonists overcoming great odds, has lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 81.
Avildsen got his start in movies as a assistant director to Carl Lerner on 1964’s Black Like Me and Otto Preminger on 1967’s Hurry Sundown. He eventually moved on to directing with films such as 1969’s Turn On To Love and 1970’s Guess What We Learned In School Today?
That same year, Avildsen directed Joe. The project marked the film debut of Susan Sarandon. Peter Boyle played the title character, a blue color loser who helps a rich suburban businessman rage war on the hippie counter culture. Its screenplay received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
In 1973, Avildsen directed Jack Lemmon in Save the Tiger, the story of a man struggling with what he has to do keep his apparel company afloat. Lemon won a Best Actor Oscar for the film, and it received two other nominations.
Avildsen would get an Oscar himself in 1976 for directing Rocky, the film became one of the most well regarded films in cinematic history and made Avildsen’s name in Hollywood. He would beg off the sequel, but would return to the franchise with 1990’s Rocky V.
The director would return to the genre with 1984’s The Karate Kid, featuring a young teen who manages overcome being bullied through learning karate taught to him by his apartment’s maintenance man. Avildsen would stay with this franchise, directing 1986’s Part II and 1989’s Part III.
Avildsen would also direct 1981’s Neighbors (which was the last film appearance of John Belushi), the 1988 teen pregnancy drama For Keeps? and the biopics Lean on Me and 8 Seconds.
At the time of his death, Avildsen was attached to direct the Holocaust revenge thriller, Nate & Al.