Director John Avildsen had hard-hitting films before 'Rocky'

Director John G. Avildsen had hard-hitting films to his credit before 'Rocky'
American Cinematheque to screen John G. Avildsen's 'Joe' and 'Save the Tiger' Friday with Q&A to follow

John G. Avildsen is best known for his uplifting films about underdogs such as the Oscar-winning 1976 "Rocky" and 1984's "The Karate Kid."

But his career didn't start out that way.

Long before he won the director Oscar for "Rocky," Avildsen received acclaimed for two dark character studies — 1970's "Joe" with Peter Boyle and Susan Sarandon and 1973's "Save the Tiger," starring Jack Lemmon, who won a lead actor Oscar for the role.

The American Cinematheque's Aero Theatre will be screening both films Friday night. In between the films, Avildsen will be in conversation with screenwriter Larry Karaszewski ("Ed Wood," the upcoming "Big Eyes").

Shot on a shoestring budget in less than a month, "Joe" ended up being one of the biggest films of the year and Norman Wexler received an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay.

The film made a star out of Boyle as Joe, a factory worker who rants against Jews, African American and hippies. One night at the local bar, he meets Bill (Dennis Patrick), a wealthy New Yorker who in a fit of rage just accidentally murdered his hippie daughter's (Susan Sarandon in her film debut) drug-dealer boyfriend. Joe and Bill become unlikely friends, but their friendship also ends up turning deadly.

"'Joe' is one of the great American films about class," noted Karaszewski.

In 1969, Avildsen was editing the low-budget sex comedy 'Guess What We Learned in School Today?,' which he directed and shot for the indie Cannon Group in New York, when the company approached him with a proposition.

"'We have raised money for this other script and we decided it's not good, but we don't want to give the money back so we have to do something right away,' " recalled Avildsen, 78, during a recent phone interview. "We got to start shooting in January."

Earlier in '69, Avildsen had talked to Cannon about an idea his friend Wexler had come up with after reading a New York Magazine piece by Gail Sheehy about a rich girl from Greenwich Village who gets involved with a dope pusher. This was also coming at the time of the "silent majority" and hard-hat reaction to Vietnam War protests.

Cannon executives initially weren't interested, but when they needed a movie Avildsen brought up the idea again. "They very reluctantly said yes, and four weeks later we were shooting the movie," he noted.

However, Cannon thought that Boyle, who was just 34, was too young to play Joe. "They thought nobody would believe he would have been in World War II. They said find somebody older. So I got Lawrence Tierney."

Avildsen didn't know of Tierney's reputation as a rabble-rouser, and a few days before shooting started Tierney got in trouble with the law, so Avildsen went back to Boyle.

Sarandon was on the daytime soap "Search for Tomorrow" when Avildsen cast her as Melissa. "Her eyes were extraordinary and she could act," said Avildsen.

The film was released in July 1970, just a few months after the Kent State shootings and a high-profile mass murder in Detroit where a railroad worker killed his daughter, her boyfriend and other students at their university residence.

"I think it was meant as a commentary, but it spoke to a group of people who were actually cheering Joe," said Karaszewski. "I think the popularity of 'Joe' led to the popularity of Archie Bunker. Archie Bunker was another case of liberals parodying loudmouth conservatives who became a loudmouth conservative champion."

Two people who saw "Joe" and loved it were Lemmon and "Save the Tiger" screenwriter and producer Steve Shagan. "They figured I was the guy to do their movie," said Avildsen.

A bleak character study, "Save the Tiger" casts Lemmon as Harry Stoner, an executive at a struggling Los Angeles apparel company. Haunted by memories of World War II and desperate for money to save his business, Harry makes plans to set fire to one of his factories for the insurance money.

Avildsen recalled his initial encounter with Lemmon: "When I came to meet him for the first time I had long hair, an extensive beard and blue-velvet jeans with daisies on my butt. I explained to him if he chose me to direct the movie, I didn't want to see him in it. I didn't want all the mannerisms, all of the things he had grown comfortable with over the years. I wanted to see [the character], not him."

Lemmon agreed. "He said, 'That's right kid, keep your eyes open.' He couldn't have been more terrific. I was very lucky to get a guy like him as my first Hollywood star."


'Joe' and 'Save the Tiger'

Where: American Cinematheque's Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Tickets: $11


Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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