The Rocky director who made underdogs into champions
John Avildsen 1935–2017
John Avildsen always rooted for the little guy. As the director of surprise blockbusters Rocky (1976) and The Karate Kid (1984), he created portraits of big-hearted but unlikely heroes who transcend their gritty, working-class surroundings to become champions. In Avildsen’s telling, though, he nearly didn’t make Rocky. He knew nothing of boxing, and the screenwriter and star, Sylvester Stallone, was then unknown. But Avildsen was won over by the film’s heroic arc—in which Rocky Balboa wins self-respect, if not the big fight. “I guess I just like to see underdogs winning against the odds,” he said. “To me, that is good drama. And the opposite would be too depressing.”
Born in Oak Park, Ill., where his father was a tool manufacturer, Avildsen “enrolled in night classes at New York University while working in advertising,” said The Guardian (U.K.). Through connections from fellow copywriters, he began working on films by directors like Otto Preminger, “while also directing his own shorts and industrial films” for companies including IBM. His Hollywood career “moved up a notch” with Save the Tiger (1973)— for which Jack Lemmon won the Best Actor Oscar—and in 1977 Avildsen won the Best Director Oscar for Rocky.
Both Rocky and The Karate Kid became successful franchises, and Avildsen directed several of the sequels, said The Washington Post. He made other films with major stars, including The Formula with George C. Scott and Marlon Brando (1980) and Lean on Me with Morgan Freeman (1989). But none replicated the success of his sporting movies. “I guess what Rocky did was give a lot of people hope,” Avildsen said. “And there was never a better feeling than doing that.” ■