John G. Avildsen, the Oscar-winning director of Rocky and The Karate Kid, died Friday in Los Angeles following a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 81.
Avildsen’s son Anthony confirmed the filmmaker’s death to the Los Angeles Times, adding that Avildsen died at Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
Avildsen won the Academy Award for Best Picture for his work on 1976’s Rocky. Like the titular boxer played by Sylvester Stallone, the film was an underdog itself: Despite a minuscule million-dollar budget, Rocky became the highest-grossing film of 1976, winning three Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director.
Despite an aversion to boxing, the director took on the film because he was drawn to Sylvester Stallone’s script about the Philadelphia fighter; “I thought boxing was stupid,” Avildsen once admitted.
Avildsen’s career began behind the camera on industrial films for advertising agencies before he mastered his craft as assistant director for legendary filmmakers like Arthur Penn and Otto Preminger. After a pair of low-budget films, Avildsen scored an unlikely hit with the 1970 anti-hippie drama Joe, which starred Peter Boyle and Susan Sarandon in her first big screen role.
Avildsen would remain active throughout the Seventies – including 1973’s Save the Tiger, which earned Jack Lemmon an Oscar for Best Actor – before helming Rocky.
Although Avildsen turned down the opportunity to direct Rocky II – he was hired to direct Saturday Night Fever but was fired by producer Robert Stigwood before filming began – his career led him to another underdog story with 1984’s The Karate Kid.
Like Rocky, The Karate Kid was an unexpected box office and critical success; Avildsen would later direct 1986’s The Karate Kid Part II and 1989’s The Karate Kid Part III. A year later, Avildsen rejoined the Rocky Balboa franchise to helm 1990’s Rocky V.
Other films in Avildsen’s catalog include the John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd comedy Neighbors, the Morgan Freeman-starring drama Lean on Me and the rom-com For Keeps. Avildsen’s last big screen feature was the 1999 Jean-Claude Van Damme action film Inferno, which co-starred his longtime Karate Kid actor Pat Morita.
Earlier this year, the filmmaker’s career was the focus of the documentary John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs.