LOS ANGELES — John G. Avildsen, who directed Rocky and The Karate Kid — two dark-horse, underdog favorites that went on to become Hollywood franchises — died Friday at age 81.
His son, Anthony Avildsen, said his father had pancreatic cancer.
Rocky won three Oscars, including best picture and best director for Avildsen, and shot little-known screenwriter/star Sylvester Stallone into a different stratosphere after his performance as a down-and-out boxer with one chance at the big time.
A major franchise was born from a film made on a budget of less than $1 million.
"We never sat down in that movie because we didn't have any chairs or craft tables. One Winnebago served as everything — a honey wagon and a wardrobe trailer for everyone," Avildsen told USA TODAY in 2014, when a Rocky Blu-ray/DVD box set was released for MGM's 90th anniversary. "We were very lean."
Rocky was a chance venture for Avildsen. Stallone, then unknown, had written the script and sought Avildsen to direct it, but Avildsen was already working on another film. Suddenly the production company ran out of money and that film was canceled. Avildsen agreed to direct Rocky even though he knew nothing about boxing.
The modest budget led to a better picture in Avildsen's eyes. For example, Rocky and Adrian's (Talia Shire) first date was supposed to take place at a crowded restaurant or in a crowded skating rink. But when those options proved too expensive to film, Avildsen and Stallone reworked the scene to take place in a closed skating rink.
The intimate scene, with only a paid-off janitor in the background, is one of the movie's most famous. "Anytime we didn't have enough money for something it turned out to be better," Avildsen told USA TODAY.
Stallone praised the director Friday night for believing in him.
"I owe just about everything to John Avildsen. His directing, his passion, his toughness and his heart — a great heart — is what made Rocky the film it became," Stallone wrote in a statement. "He changed my life and I will be forever indebted to him. Nobody could have done it better than my friend John Avildsen. I will miss him."
Five sequels followed, but Avildsen turned them down, until the fourth, Rocky V, in 1990. He said he considered it a good script and liked that Rocky would die. But Avildsen got a call from his studio bosses blocking the plan.
"They told me James Bond doesn't die. Superman doesn't die. Rocky doesn't die," Avildsen told USA TODAY. "So Rocky didn't die. But the movie died. I was disappointed and that's why the picture was disappointing."
1984's The Karate Kid was another surprise hit. In it, a teenager hounded by bullies played by Ralph Macchio seeks help from a Japanese handyman (Noryuki "Pat" Morita) who teaches him about karate. At the climax, a newly self-confident Macchio takes on a bully in a karate contest — and wins.
The movie brought Morita, a veteran performer best known for his TV roles, an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor.
"As soon as the producers saw the business it was doing, they wanted to do it again," Avildsen said in a 1986 interview. "I was very apprehensive. I didn't want to do a sequel because this was a very tough act to follow."
He relented and directed both The Karate Kid, Part II in 1986 and The Karate Kid, Part III in 1989. (The franchise was revived in 2010 with a hit remake directed by Harald Zwart.)
Avildsen had come up the hard way in films. He started with a long apprenticeship as assistant director, then moved up to production manager, cinematographer and editor.
He directed a few small films and broke through with Joe (1970), starring Peter Boyle as a hardhat bigot at odds with the emerging hippie youth culture. Next came Save the Tiger (1973), starring Jack Lemmon as a burned-out dress manufacturer; Lemmon would go on to win a best actor Oscar for the role.
Avildsen directed other major stars: Burt Reynolds in W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975); George C. Scott and Marlon Brando in The Formula (1980); Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in Neighbors (1981); and Morgan Freeman in Lean on Me (1989).
He had been hired to direct Saturday Night Fever after his success with Rocky, but was let go amid differences over his desire to make the story more upbeat than the producers had in mind. "It's better not to be doing something you don't want to do," Avildsen told the Los Angeles Times after he departed from the project.
In a 1992 interview, Avildsen outlined his view of filmmaking: "I guess I just like to see underdogs winning against the odds. To me, that is good drama. And the opposite would be too depressing."
Contributing: Jake Coyle and Anthony McCartney of the Associated Press, Bryan Alexander and Kim Willis of USA TODAY