In Memoriam: John G. Avildsen, 1935-2017 - Golden Globe Nominee, Champion of the Underdogs

by Ana Maria Bahiana June 16, 2017
Director John G. Avildsen

Director John G. Avildsen on the "Rocky steps"in Philadelphia, 2014

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Director John G. Avildsen, Golden Globe nominee for Rocky, has died in Los Angeles from complications of pancreatic cancer. He was 81. Avildsen had a long and productive career, with iconic films such as Save the Tiger (1973), the Karate Kid trilogy (1984, 1986 and 1989), Lean on Me (1989), Rocky V (1989) and 8 Seconds (1994).

Born in Oak Park, Illinois, John Guilbert Avildsen started his career in the mid 1960s as assistant director for Arthur Penn and Otto Preminger. His first feature was Turn on Love (1969), a romantic drama set against the underground scene of New York’s Greenwich Village. But it was the intense character study of Save the Tiger, in 1973, that put him on the map. A tale of disillusion and middle age crisis in a rapidly changing America, Tiger is carried by a spectacular performance by Jack Lemmon, which earned him a Golden Globe nomination (besides two other nominations for the film and supporting actor Jack Gilford).

Three years later Avildsen would become a star director thanks to Rocky, a critical and box office success that earned him a Golden Globe nomination, along with five more for the picture - which took home the award for Best Motion Picture-Drama. Avildsen would return to the Rocky world in 1990, with Rocky V, and in between he scored another iconic franchise – The Karate Kid trilogy, an essential piece of 1980s pop culture (and the recipient of two Golden Globe nominations).

A documentary about his life and work, John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs (2016), highlighted his passion for fighters of all kinds, from Rocky Balboa to Morgan Freeman's inner-school teacher in Lean on Me - characters faced with apparently unsurmountable obstacles, who find their strength within themselves, against all odds.

At the time of his death Avildsen was working on the pre-production of his 25th feature film, Nate & Al, a road movie starring Richard Dreyfuss and Martin Landau.