John G. Avildsen, the Oscar-winning director of the original Rocky with Sylvester Stallone, passed away Friday in Los Angeles after battling pancreatic cancer (per Variety). He was 81.
With his work on the surprise smash hit Rocky, Avildsen established a reputation as a crafter of audience-pleasing underdog stories, a reputation he would expand upon with his rousing Rocky-like 1984 film The Karate Kid. Avildsen would direct both sequels to The Karate Kid, and in 1990 he would return to direct Rocky V (after famously passing on the opportunity to direct Rocky II, a decision he would later admit was a mistake).
Even before Rocky, Avildsen showed an affinity for sympathetic downtrodden characters, as in his 1973 film Save the Tiger starring Jack Lemmon as a down-on-his-luck businessman struggling to hold on to his moral center in a seemingly crumbling world. Lemmon would go on to win an Oscar for his performance in that film. In 1989, Avildsen would direct Morgan Freeman to one of his career-defining performances in the biopic Lean On Me about tough inner-city principal Joe Clark.
So strongly did Avildsen come to be identified with underdog characters that a recent documentary about him was entitled John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs. Avildsen occasionally broke away from his favored material, though, and tackled more off-beat subject matter. No film of his was more strange than 1980’s The Formula, starring acting titans George C. Scott and (a bizarrely-disguised) Marlon Brando in a story about a man whose discovery could end the need for oil. In addition to his skill as a director of actors, Avildsen was a technically-accomplished all-around filmmaker who began as a cinematographer and throughout his career took editor credit on many of his own films.
Avildsen also got a chance to do comedy with the 1981 film Neighbors starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, and dipped his toe into the rom-com pool with the 1988 Molly Ringwald film For Keeps? Avildsen’s last completed feature film was the 1999 Jean-Claude Van Damme flick Inferno, a movie Avildsen attempted unsuccessfully to have his name removed from after it was recut. At the time of his death, Avildsen was at work on his first film in nearly two decades, Nate & Al with Richard Dreyfuss and Martin Landau.
Among those paying tribute to Avildsen was his Rocky star Sylvester Stallone who posted a farewell on Instagram with the caption “I’m sure you will soon be directing Hits in Heaven- Thank you, Sly.”