By the time he came to worldwide prominence in 1976, John G. Avildsen had already done what some of Hollywood’s greatest ever directors had failed to do: win Jack Lemmon a Best Actor Oscar. It was an an acknowledged truth, at that time, Lemmon was one of the great masters, yet where George Cukor and even Billy Wilder failed (as he rarely did) Avildsen succeeded with Save The Tiger, the seventh in in a little-noted career of well-received, little-seen small-budget movies.
Lemmon played a small-time businessman going nowhere in ’70s America. Despite Lemmon’s oft-delayed Oscar, the movie was too downbeat to set the tills ringing. In America’s Bicentennial year however, Avildsen took on another no-hoper, going nowhere, but this time he added a happy ending. Moved by the fact that Hollywood-nobody Sylvester Stallone, with absolutely nothing whatsoever to back it up, had insisted on playing the lead role as a contractual obligation for the purchase of his script, Avildsen took on his speedily written script and directed it in less than a month (…a month!).
Rocky became an international sensation and beat out Taxi Driver, All The President’s Men, Bound For Glory and Network to win the Best Picture Oscar. Avildsen himself took home the Best Director Oscar, beating Scorsese, Alan J. Pakula, Sidney Lumet and even Ingmar Bergman.
This inspirational tale of an underdog willing himself to defeat seemingly insurmountable odds became something of a through-line for Avildsen’s work. In 1984, he directed one of the biggest hits of the year: The Karate Kid, in which a weedy working-class New Jersey teenager faces up to his bullying Aryan tormentors, with a little help from Mr Miyagi, (Academy Award-nominee Noriyuki “Pat” Morita) who also taught an entire generation about the foolproof wax on/wax off method of car polishing.
Avildsen turned down the first three Rocky sequels but stayed with the Karate Kid franchise for the second (immensely successful) and third (much less so) films. Elsewhere, he never quite cemented his Rocky success. There were other hits like 1989’s Morgan Freeman hit Lean On Me, and he returned to the one-boxer-against-the world milieu with 1992’s The Power of One, which was scuppered by Stephen Dorff’s “not-quite-there” Sarth-Iffrikann accent. He finally came home in 1990 with Rocky V, which became a franchise nadir, possibly because the script (in which Rocky died, giving his return some kind of poetic sense) was rewritten during shooting.
Nonetheless, his was the tale of a noble scrapper, who wasn’t afraid to take on the big boys and even when they’d sometimes beaten him down onto the canvas, he had enough mastery of the artist’s palette to make it look as though he’d actually won the match.
In a statement, Sylvester Stallone said “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 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.”