John Avildsen, 81, director who won Oscar for ‘Rocky’

Mr. Avildsen also directed ‘The Karate Kid,’’ another surprise hit.
Associated Press/file 1977
Mr. Avildsen also directed ‘The Karate Kid,’’ another surprise hit.

LOS ANGELES — John G. Avildsen, who directed ‘‘Rocky’’ and ‘‘The Karate Kid’’ — two dark-horse, underdog favorites that went on to become Hollywood franchises — died Friday. He was 81.

Anthony Avildsen said his father died in Los Angeles from pancreatic cancer.

‘‘Rocky’’ was a huge success. It won Oscars for best picture, director (Mr. Avildsen), and editing and was nominated for seven others.


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

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A friend sent Mr. Avildsen the ‘‘Rocky’’ script. ‘‘On page 3, this guy (Rocky) is talking to his turtles, and I was hooked,’’ Mr. Avildsen remarked. ‘‘It was a great character study.’’ Mr. 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.

Sequels followed, but Mr. Avildsen turned them down, until ‘‘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,’’ Mr. Avildsen commented.

‘‘The Karate Kid’’ was another surprise hit. In it, a teenager hounded by bullies played by Ralph Macchio seeks help from a Japanese handyman (Noryuki ‘‘Pat’’ Morita) who teaches him about karate. At the climax, a newly self-confident Macchio takes on a bully in a karate contest — and wins.


Released in the summer of 1984, ‘‘The Karate Kid’’ attracted millions of youngsters and brought Morita, a veteran performer best known for his TV roles, an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor.

‘‘As soon as the producers saw the business it was doing, they wanted to do it again,’’ Avildsen said in a 1986 interview. ‘‘I was very apprehensive. I didn’t want to do a sequel because this was a very tough act to follow.’’

He relented and directed both ‘‘The Karate Kid, Part II’’ in 1986 and ‘‘The Karate Kid, Part III’’ in 1989. (The franchise was revived in 2010 with a hit remake directed by Harald Zwart.)

Mr. Avildsen had come up the hard way in films. He started with a long apprenticeship as assistant director, then moved up to production manager, cinematographer, and editor.

He directed a few small films and then broke through with ‘‘Joe’’ (1970). Peter Boyle portrayed a hardhat bigot at odds with the emerging hippie youth culture.


Mr. Avildsen directed other major stars: Burt Reynolds in ‘‘W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings’’ (1975); George C. Scott and Marlon Brando in ‘‘The Formula’’ (1980); Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in ‘‘Neighbors’’ (1981); and Morgan Freeman in ‘‘Lean on Me’’ (1989).

Mr. Avildsen leaves four children.