Few directors experienced the career highs and lows like filmmaker John G. Avildsen, whose résumé included two of the most popular films ever made - 1976's "Rocky" and 1984's "The Karate Kid" - as well as scores of misfires and abject failures. A former advertising manager, he entered film through the independent route in the early 1960s before making his first big splash with 1970's controversial "Joe." Subsequent efforts stumbled until he took on "Save the Tiger" (1973), a bleak look at the collapse of a businessman's life and self-esteem. Its Oscar win for star Jack Lemmon brought Avildsen to the attention of Hollywood, but it took the low-budget boxing drama "Rocky" to earn him an Oscar and industry respect. Unfortunately, he found it difficult to find worthy material in its wake; his few subsequent hits were cast in the mold of the Sylvester Stallone film, like "Karate Kid." However, the enduring popularity of both movies preserved Avildsen in the history books as a director with a unique skill for inspiring audiences through the triumphs of his underdog characters.
Born Dec. 21, 1935 in Oak Park, IL, John Guilbert Avildsen was the son of Clarence Avildsen, a tool manufacturer, and his wife, Ivy Guilbert. After service as a chaplain's assistant in the U.S. Army, the young man began working as an advertising manager for Vespa Motor Scooters before dipping his toe into motion pictures with "The Greenwich Village Story" (1963), a coming-of-age tearjerker set in New York's famed bohemian community. Avildsen was a jack-of-all-trades on the picture, serving as assistant director and production assistant as well as an actor in the film. The experience gave him a solid working knowledge of many of the key positions on a film crew, and he soon plied his experience to a wide variety of projects, including assistant director for Carl Lerner's adaptation of the controversial "Black Like Me" (1964) and Arthur Penn's gripping "Mickey One" (1965), with Warren Beatty as a haunted stand-up comic. Avildsen soon graduated to the director's chair for several short films, including "Smiles" and "Lights-Sound-Diffuse," as well as for industrial films for IBM and Clairol. By 1967, he had graduated to Hollywood product with Otto Preminger's misbegotten "Hurry Sundown" (1967), for which he served as assistant director.
In 1969, Avildsen made his debut as a feature director with "Turn On to Love," a low-budget softcore movie that purported to examine the hippie/free love lifestyle. Dreary even by grindhouse standards, the film did serve as notice that Avildsen was a one-man production crew; in addition to directing the picture, he also served as cinematographer and editor. Forgotten at the time of its release, it would be a mild embarrassment for the filmmaker after his post-"Rocky" success. Avildsen took the same approach with his next feature, a low-budget drama called "Joe" (1970), but the end result was decidedly different. A harrowing, darkly comic story of a blue-collar loudmouth (Peter Boyle) whose hatred for the counterculture leads to a massacre, the film was widely praised by critics who viewed it as a glimpse into the mindset of conservative, middle-class America and a harbinger of conflicts between the hippie and hardhat sets to come. The picture also benefitted from a gruesome real-life murder case involving a railroad worker who killed his daughter and three friends while sleeping at their student residence at Wayne State University; the media drew immediate parallels between the case and the film, which saw astounding box office returns. Its effect on the careers of its participants were both positive and negative; Norman Wexler received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, while diehard peace activist Peter Boyle vowed to never appear in another violent film after seeing audiences cheer for his character as he mowed down hippies in the picture's final moments.
As for Avildsen, the end result was a pass to make more features, but it would be several more years before he would graduate from the low-budget circles. The success of "Joe" gave some exposure to a low-budget comedy about sex education called "Guess What We Learned in School Today?" (1971), which he shot prior to "Joe," but only saw release after the later film began racking up dollars at the box office. Avildsen next directed a pair of bizarre comedies - "Cry Uncle!" (1971) was a perverse parody of detective thrillers, with a slovenly Allen Garfield as a gumshoe investigating a murder and indulging in gross-out sex scenes, including a "humorous" bit of necrophilia, while "The Stoolie" (1972) was an early attempt by comic Jackie Mason to revive his career with a comedy about a deadbeat crook that steals from his criminal cohorts. Neither film saw many screenings outside of the 42nd Street and drive-in circuits, and it was soon followed by "Fore Play" (1973), a trio of sex-comedy shorts with political edge that featured Jerry Orbach, Zero Mostel and Estelle Parsons.
However, Avildsen's ability to shoot and complete low-budget films in an efficient and cost-effective manner put him in the running to oversee a small drama called "Save the Tiger" (1973), with Jack Lemmon as a businessman teetering on the edge of financial and emotional ruin while attempting to recapture the joys of his youth. Shot in three weeks and for a miniscule budget that required Lemmon and his cast mates to work for scale, the film received near-universal acclaim, as well as an Oscar for Lemmon and a Golden Globe for co-star Jack Gilford. It also put Avildsen on the Hollywood map for the first time, though his initial foray would be anything but smooth.
Avildsen was the director of choice for the Al Pacino cop drama "Serpico" (1973), but was fired from the production over arguments with producer Martin Bregman. He would not step behind the camera for another two years, during which time he was represented by the crass "Fore Play" - a considerable comedown from the heights struck by "Save the Tiger." When he finally landed a directorial assignment, it was for the genial comedy-drama "W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings" (1976), with Burt Reynolds in his country-fried phase as the manager of a Southern singing group who also robs banks on the side. Likable if entirely forgettable, it performed modestly at the box office.
But it was his skill with low-budget productions that again propelled Avildsen into the limelight. Hired by producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler to handle a boxing picture in the style of 1930s and '40s dramas, Avildsen became the director of one of the most financially successful and well-loved films of the 20th century. "Rocky" (1976), written by its star, a struggling actor named Sylvester Stallone, was a remarkable blend of ringside action, tender romance and character-driven drama, with marvelous performances by its largely unknown cast and fight scenes that drew viewers into the heat of battle by virtue of the then-new Steadicam technology. Shot for $1.1 million, it grossed $225 million worldwide, won the Best Picture Oscar, and made Stallone one of the most recognizable actors on the planet. For once, Avildsen himself shared in the glory by netting a Best Director Oscar. Again, he seemed poised to break into the Hollywood mainstream - but as before, success would continue to evade him.
Avildsen found himself on top of another blockbuster hit immediately after "Rocky." Producer Robert Stigwood had hired him to direct "Saturday Night Fever" (1977), but conflict between the two forced Avildsen out of the project, which of course went on to be as iconic as "Rocky." His next effort as director was "Slow Dancing in the Big City" (1978), a melodrama about a New York columnist (Paul Sorvino, who also appeared briefly in "Rocky") who falls for a terminally ill ballerina, played by Golden Globe nominee Anne Ditchburn. Scored by "Rocky" composer Bill Conti, the film tugged relentlessly at audiences' heartstrings but failed to generate much attention from ticket buyers. The same fate befell his next efforts, which also suffered from off-camera troubles involving their casts. "The Formula" (1980) starred two notoriously difficult actors, Marlon Brando and George C. Scott, in a thriller penned by "Save the Tiger" author Steve Shagan about the hunt for a Nazi-created synthetic fuel. The film was largely rebuilt in the editing studio after its completion, as was "Neighbors" (1981), a dark comedy that featured John Belushi in his final movie appearance. Hated by nearly every person involved with the project, from writer Larry Gelbart and composer Bill Conti - both of whom saw their work completely retooled - to Belushi and co-star Dan Aykroyd - the former of which threatened to beat up the director at every opportunity - the film was an ignoble end to its star's career and a low point for Avildsen.
The genuine nadir of Avildsen's output came two years later with "A Night in Heaven" (1983), a stunningly crass drama about a student (Christopher Atkins) who moonlights as a male stripper, and the professor (Lesley Ann Warren) who falls for him. A throwback of sorts to Avildsen's early career in exploitation, it was lambasted by critics and ignored by moviegoers, save for its soundtrack, which featured a hit title track by Canadian singer Bryan Adams. The picture also came on the heels of a personal low for the director, who was taken to court by his lover, model Miroslawa Prystay, for child support. He was forced to pay a lump sum and provide five years of financial support for their son, Ashley. In 1993, he lost a case brought against him by Prystay over unpaid support checks.
Avildsen's career began its slow recovery in 1982 with an Oscar nomination for "Traveling Hopefully," a documentary short about ACLU founder Roger Baldwin and his fight for free speech. However, his next feature was the blockbuster "Karate Kid" (1984). Built largely on the same model as "Rocky" - an underdog (Ralph Macchio) learns respect and fighting skills through a wizened sage (Pat Morita) - it generated the same stand-up-and-cheer response from viewers, coined "Wax on, wax off" as an oft-quoted movie line, made Macchio a star, and earned the veteran Morita an Oscar nomination. It was quickly followed by "Karate Kid II" (1987), which moved the action to Japan; though not as critically praised as its predecessor, the film topped the first picture in ticket sales.
Unfortunately, Avildsen was again unable to sustain the forward momentum provided by the "Karate Kid" films with his subsequent projects. "Happy New Year' (1987) was based on a 1973 French film of the same name and starred Peter Falk as a jewel thief with a penchant for elaborate disguises. It barely received a theatrical release. The same fate befell "For Keeps" (1988), a comedy about teen pregnancy that contributed to the decline of Molly Ringwald's status as a teen star. However, he found redemption with "Lean on Me" (1989), a true-life school drama about a tough principal (Morgan Freeman) that leaned heavily on his "Rocky" and "Karate Kid" past in an attempt to portray itself as a similarly inspirational tale. The ploy largely worked, with Freeman receiving an NAACP Image Award for his performance.
"Lean on Me" would be the last substantial hit of Avildsen's career to date. Subsequent efforts to mine the "Rocky"/"Karate Kid" vibe, including "The Power of One" (1992), with white South African boxer Stephen Dorff training with Freeman, and "8 Seconds" (1994), with Luke Perry as the ill-fated rodeo star Lane Frost, failed to find audiences. Even a return to the "Rocky" franchise with 1990's "Rocky V" was met with dismissal as the worst entry in the series. By 1999, he was reduced to helming B-grade efforts like "Inferno" (1999), a lame vehicle for Jean-Claude Van Damme's waning star. In 2007, he partnered with son Anthony Avildsen to co-direct the documentary "Dancing into the Future," which followed dance instructor Jacques D'Amboise's 2004 trip to China to work with dance students there on a special performance for the Shanghai Special Olympics.