'Rocky' director John G. Avildsen dies at 81

Oscar-winning director John G. Avildsen, whose “Rocky” sent a shot of adrenaline through movie theaters and turned Sylvester Stallone into one of cinema’s most unforgettable boxers, has died at 81.

Avildsen’s eldest son, Anthony, said the filmmaker died Friday of pancreatic cancer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

With rousing music and sentimental scripts, Avildsen was a master at ennobling and lifting the underdog into states of grace. He won best director for “Rocky” (1976), the tale of Rocky Balboa’s gritty and unlikely transcendence from the streets of South Philadelphia, and was also known for “The Karate Kid” (1984), the story of a restless teenager and his Okinawan martial arts mentor.

But Avildsen was also known for deep and nuanced portraits of characters caught in the complexities of their times. His “Save the Tiger” (1973), which won Jack Lemmon an Academy Award for best actor, was the story of a garment manufacturer who burns down his company for insurance money. In “Joe” (1970), Peter Boyle starred as a racist factory worker and iconoclast in an exploration of hippies and murder that touched on the nation’s changing cultures.

In an interview with The Times in 2014, Avildsen recalled his 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.”

Avildsen explored social ills, unexpected relationships and the friction and forgiveness that run through life. “Lean on Me” (1989) cast Morgan Freeman as a New Jersey school principal trying to help students stay clear of violence and drugs. “Neighbors” (1981) starred John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as disparate middle-aged neighbors in a comedy that captured the insecurities and eccentricities of suburbia. Critic Roger Ebert called “Neighbors” a “truly interesting comedy, an offbeat experiment in hallucinatory black humor. It grows on you.”

But it was his film about a boxer that roused a nation, revived the well-worn pugilist melodrama and set loose a string of sequels. “Rocky” entered the consciousness at a time America was shaken by Watergate and the Vietnam War and was trying to find its way as the radicalism of the 1960s settled into the uncertain — and at times bland and hero-less — 1970s.

“Rocky” was a hit with audiences but not always with critics. Writing in the New York Times, Vincent Canby concluded: “Under the none too decisive direction of [Avildsen], Mr. Stallone is all over ‘Rocky’ to such an extent it begins to look like a vanity production…. It’s as if Mr. Stallone had studied the careers of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola and then set out to copy the wrong things.”

The Hollywood Reporter in its review credited Avildsen with “extraordinary insight, and an even more extraordinary feeling for the rhythm and pace of his film…. ‘Rocky is a picture that should make movie history.”

In an interview last year, Avildsen told the Baltimore Sun about his initial misgivings about “Rocky”: “When this script came to me from an old friend ... I said I had no interest in boxing, I think boxing’s sort of a dumb thing,” he said. “He pleaded and pleaded, so I finally read the thing. And on the second or third page, he’s talking to his turtles, Cuff and Link. I was charmed by it, and I thought it was an excellent character study and a beautiful love story. And I said yes.”

Avildsen, who also directed Marlon Brando and George C. Scott in the World War II thriller “The Formula,” is the subject of a new documentary, “John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs.” That film had its world premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival this year and is slated for a digital and home video release in August.

Born Dec. 21, 1935, in Oak Park, Ill., Avildsen is survived by sons Anthony, Jonathan and Ashley; and daughter, Bridget.

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