John G. Avildsen, the Academy Award-winning director behind Rocky, has died at the age of 81. Avildsen had been battling pancreatic cancer, according to the Los Angeles Times.
A native of Oak Park, Illinois, Avildsen first came to fame in 1970 with Joe, a low-budget action drama about two men who kill drug-dealing hippies. The film marked the debut role for a young actress named Susan Sarandon, and also earned Norman Wexler an Oscar nomination for Best Screen Writing. Three years later, Avildsen helmed Save the Tiger, which earned Jack Lemmon an Academy Award for his portrayal of a fashion executive embroiled in an existential crisis.
Avildsen’s definitive work came in 1976 when he introduced moviegoers to an upstart boxer named Rocky Balboa. Rocky was a commercial and critical smash, and marked the beginning of one of Hollywood’s most successful franchises. For his part, Avildsen earned the Oscar for Best Director. He later returned to the franchise in 1990 to direct Rocky V.
In the 1980s, Avildsen helmed another popular franchise in The Karate Kid, directing the original 1981 film and its two subsequent sequels in 1986 and 1989, to the tune of nearly a quarter-billion dollars grossed overall.
The director was also the subject of a recent documentary, John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs, which is currently screening at various film festivals.
Avildsen is survived by his daughter Bridget, and his sons Ashley, Anthony, and Jonathan.